Of Crosses and Confederate Monuments: A Theory of Unconstitutional Government Speech

59 Pages Posted: 12 Oct 2019 Last revised: 11 Feb 2021

See all articles by Richard Schragger

Richard Schragger

University of Virginia School of Law


This Article uses controversies over government-sponsored religious symbols and Confederate monuments to consider the appropriate constitutional limits on the government’s symbolic expression. It contrasts two types of constitutional harm that can arise from the government’s expressive acts. “Expressions that harm” refers to denigrating or exclusionary government speech that causes material harm to members of the community. “Expressive wrongs” describes constitutional violations that arise when a government action conveys an improper social meaning. The government’s symbolic speech can and should be subject to constitutional review under either theory.

The Supreme Court has been increasingly hesitant to impose substantive constraints on the government’s speech, however. Recently, the Court decided American Legion v. American Humanist Association, holding that a 40-foot-tall Latin cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, does not violate the Establishment Clause. It further held that long-standing government-sponsored religious symbols enjoy a presumption of constitutionality.

This Article critiques American Legion and asks what it portends for potential equal protection challenges to Confederate iconography. It argues that even as the Court is hesitant to impose substantive restrictions on the government’s symbolic speech, it should be attentive to the dangers of majoritarian control of the public square. The Article describes three such dangers: entrenchment, favoritism, and domination. Government symbolic speech that is a product of, or results in, the entrenchment of permanent symbolic majorities, that favors some private speakers over others, or that is imposed by one political community on another, should be constitutionally troubling. The Article applies these minimal conditions for legitimate government speech to current debates about religious symbols and Confederate monuments.

Keywords: government speech, crosses, Confederate iconography, Supreme Court, Establishment Clause, Free Exercise Clause, Equal Protection Clause, expressive equal treatment, expressive theories of law

Suggested Citation

Schragger, Richard, Of Crosses and Confederate Monuments: A Theory of Unconstitutional Government Speech. Arizona Law Review, Forthcoming, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2019-56, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3468469

Richard Schragger (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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