Free Speech and Democracy: A Primer for 21st Century Reformers

55 Pages Posted: 18 Jun 2020 Last revised: 26 Feb 2021

See all articles by Toni M. Massaro

Toni M. Massaro

University of Arizona College of Law

Helen L. Norton

University of Colorado Law School

Date Written: February 25, 2021


Left unfettered, the 21st-century speech environment threatens to undermine critical pieces of the democratic project. Speech operates today in ways unimaginable not only to the First Amendment’s 18th--century writers but also to its 20th-century champions. Key among these changes is that speech is cheaper and more abundant than ever before, and can be exploited—by both government and powerful private actors alike—as a tool for controlling others’ speech and frustrating meaningful public discourse and democratic outcomes.

The Court’s longstanding First Amendment doctrine rests on a model of how speech works that is no longer accurate. This invites us to reconsider our answers to key questions and to adjust doctrine and theory to account for these changes. Yet there is a more or less to these re-imagining efforts: they may seek to topple, or instead to tweak, current theory and doctrine. Either route requires that reformers revisit the foundational questions underlying the Free Speech Clause: What, whom and how does it protect—and from whom, from what, and why?

Part I of this Article discusses the threats to public discourse and democracy posed in the 21st century speech environment, as well as the failure of traditional First Amendment theory and doctrine adequately to address these threats. Part II compares the advantages and shortcomings of topples and tweaks as strategies for reform—and by reform, we mean changes to theory and doctrine that may enable the First Amendment to better protect free speech values and democracy from the threats posed by cheap, abundant, and weaponized speech. Here we focus on tweaks and explain why. Part III identifies key features of contemporary theory and doctrine that hobble efforts to empower the First Amendment to respond to the threats to well-functioning democracy posed in the 21st-century speech environment. In so doing, it introduces a process for considering and addressing foundational obstacles for constructive First Amendment reform and flags some proposals (our own, as well as others’) for productive tweaks to those core features.

Keywords: Constitutional law, first Amendment, democracy, free speech, political speech, separation of powers, federalism, state action doctrine, liberalism

Suggested Citation

Massaro, Toni Marie and Norton, Helen L., Free Speech and Democracy: A Primer for 21st Century Reformers (February 25, 2021). 54 UC Davis Law Review 1631 (2021), Arizona Legal Studies Discussion Paper No. 20-27, U of Colorado Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 20-43, Available at SSRN:

Toni Marie Massaro (Contact Author)

University of Arizona College of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 210176
Tucson, AZ 85721-0176
United States
520-626-2687 (Phone)
520-621-9140 (Fax)

Helen L. Norton

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States

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