The Law of Free Expression and New Information Technologies: The First Amendment Isn’t Obsolete

72 Pages Posted: 3 Nov 2020 Last revised: 6 Nov 2020

Date Written: September 14, 2020

Abstract

Recently the literature on free expression has turned to the question, Should the law of free expression be adjusted because of the availability of new information technologies (hereafter NIT), and if so, how? The only thing about NIT that distinguishes them from traditional media is that disseminating expression via NIT is much less expensive than doing so via traditional media. The tenor of recent scholarship on NIT and free expression is that the invention of NIT does support some modification of free expression law. This Essay argues that that conclusion might be correct, but that many of the arguments offered in support move much too quickly. The Essay tries to slow them down and in so doing to suggest that the arguments require complex and contestable judgments about exactly how an expansion of expression might elicit new rules regulating it. My goal is to identify the lines of analysis that need to be pursued before we conclude that the existing law of free expression should be modified in response to NIT. In that somewhat limited sense the Essay is contrarian.

The Essay examines and critiques Professor Tim Wu’s prominent version of the argument that the development of NIT should lead us to rethink the law of free expression. After laying out the paradigm underlying free expression law, that speech causes harm, the Essay examines two aspects of the argument that the more speech, the more harm, which might lead us to seek a new set of rules that jointly optimize speech and harm. One is that NIT should lead us to alter substantive First Amendment law because NIT lead us to reconsider the general balance we have struck among the values promoted by free expression. Section IV deals with that argument. The second is that NIT affect the mechanisms by which specific categories of speech cause specific harms. That argument calls for a more granular approach. To implement that approach the Essay looks at the mechanisms by which more speech might render the “rules in place” no longer socially optimal. It examines false statements that injure reputation (libel), expression that induces unlawful action (the subject of the traditional law of sedition); sexually explicit expression (obscenity and pornography); false statements that inflict no material harm (“fake news”); and threats (cyberstalking).

A final section turns to arguments about the platforms used by NIT – Twitter, Facebook, and the like. (1) The platforms should be subject to the same limitations on speech regulation that apply to the government. These arguments sound in the state-action doctrine rather than in the First Amendment, and I have relatively little to say about them. (2) The platforms can be regulated through the application of antitrust or fiduciary law without violating the First Amendment. I discuss existing First Amendment doctrine about the application of “general” laws to the media and examine some issues that might arise in connection with tinkering with antitrust or fiduciary law as the vehicle for platform regulation. (3) The platforms should be held liable for the utterances they disseminate, holding constant the substantive rules of libel, threats, and the like.

The Essay’s overall theme is that the First Amendment rules in place probably already accommodate the concerns that motivate arguments for adjusting the law of free expression. The First Amendment, that is, is not obsolete.

Keywords: free speech, new information technologies, Tim Wu, cyberstalking

Suggested Citation

Tushnet, Mark V., The Law of Free Expression and New Information Technologies: The First Amendment Isn’t Obsolete (September 14, 2020). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3692576 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3692576

Mark V. Tushnet (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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