A Close Reading of Barnette, in Honor of Vincent Blasi
13 FIU L. Rev. 689 (2019)
41 Pages Posted: 13 May 2019
Date Written: April 12, 2019
This article, written for a symposium marking the 75th anniversary of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, offers a close reading of Justice Jackson's opinion for the Court. In doing so, it offers an implicit and explicit tribute to Vincent Blasi, whose teaching and writing have emphasized the value of deep, careful engagement with the language and arguments of a single text, such as a judicial opinion, and who has been an inspiration to me and many other contemporary First Amendment scholars.
This close reading explores a gallery of passages from Barnette that have received relatively little scholarly attention, largely because Jackson's arresting "fixed star" passage has monopolized much of the discussion. But other passages in the opinion help reveal additional important points about the case with important broader implications. They suggest something about why Jackson treated this as a speech rather than a religion case and as an individual liberty case rather than an equal treatment case. They have implications for arguments about third-party harms, "government nonendorsement," student speech, and heckler's veto doctrine. And they underscore the importance of Jackson's description of an autonomous "sphere of intellect and spirit" and of the limits of state power in this area. Perhaps much more than has been recognized, Barnette is a paean to the sovereignty of the mind, and in doing so it treats this realm as much or more as a matter of state non-interference than as a subject for measured judicial balancing.
Although I focus closely on the text of the opinion itself, I offer some larger assessments of Barnette's condition today. I make two general observations. First, on the one hand, Barnette had an excellent 75th anniversary year, with citations and discussions in major Supreme Court decisions suggesting its stock is high. On the other, I suggest that it is in much poorer health in academic circles. A striking number of scholarly discussions of current issues, such as the wedding vendor cases, omit Barnette altogether. I suggest that these omissions are evidence of a deeper discomfort with Barnette. And for good reason: As this close reading reveals, the words and deeper music of Barnette are in genuine tension with current popular positions on these issues, and suggest that at some point these scholars need to engage directly and seriously with Barnette. Second, I argue that in interesting ways Barnette is a kind of "pre-capitulation" of much that happened in First Amendment law in the 75 years that followed it. This is true not just in the sense that Barnette positively inspired a great deal of First Amendment doctrine, but also in the sense that much of the jurisprudence that followed consisted of efforts to cabin Barnette and its implications and to build safety valves around it.
Keywords: Barnette, free speech, freedom of religion, flag salute, pledge of allegiance, Jehovah's Witnesses, Vincent Blasi, Robert Jackson, compelled speech, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Sherbert, Gobitis, student speech, civil religion, nonendorsement, fixed star, culture wars
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