Clarifying Viewpoint Discrimination In Free Speech Doctrine

78 Pages Posted: 25 Apr 2019

See all articles by R. Randall Kelso

R. Randall Kelso

South Texas College of Law Houston

Date Written: January 03, 2019


The preliminary decision that must be made in First Amendment free speech cases is what level of review to apply. A critical part of this inquiry is whether the government action involves viewpoint discrimination, content-based subject-matter regulation, or content-neutral regulation. Whether some government action -- either statute, administrative regulation, or other official conduct -- involves viewpoint discrimination is thus a critically important issue in First Amendment free speech doctrine. The Supreme Court has not done as good a job at it could in clarifying when, in general, government action involves viewpoint discrimination or instead involves content-based, subject-matter regulation. Particular areas of concern involve issues of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the American public, vulgar speech, speech that might disparage others, or speech viewed as offensive by some members of the public, even if not by the government itself. This Article provides some guidance on how all these issues should be resolved.

Once those issues are addressed, the Article provides an overview of free speech doctrine in terms of the various standards of scrutiny when viewpoint discrimination either is or is not occurring. The Article address how to make the overall doctrine more predictable in various areas of free speech doctrine: government funding, school context, commercial speech, and speech by government workers on matters of public concern. While the Supreme Court has done an adequate job in making standards clear, the Court has left some holes in the analysis prompting unnecessary confusion at state court, federal district court, and federal court of appeals levels.

Suggested Citation

Kelso, R. Randall, Clarifying Viewpoint Discrimination In Free Speech Doctrine (January 03, 2019). Available at SSRN: or

R. Randall Kelso (Contact Author)

South Texas College of Law Houston ( email )

1303 San Jacinto Street
Houston, TX 77002
United States
713-646-1837 (Phone)

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