Weaponized from the Beginning

21 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2022

Date Written: September 2, 2022


Standard accounts of the modern First Amendment attribute its origins to a moment of hopeful discovery of the value of free speech for democratic self-government. But the reverse is also true. The modern law of speech arose simultaneous with the World War One-era realization that unregulated communication in mass society also meant propaganda, lies, and the distortion of public opinion. Key figures in the first generation of modern free speech thus treated speech freedoms as necessary but radically insufficient in the production of democratic public opinion. Intermediary institutions, they believed, shaped information flows and helped produce public opinion. Some, like Walter Lippmann, turned to the administrative state. Others, like Roger Baldwin, championed labor organizations and industrial democracy. A century later, our crisis arises in part out of attacks on the administrative state and the collapse of labor unions, which have undermined the very institutions that prescient observers a century ago believed crucial for managing distortion in the democratic public sphere.

Keywords: free speech, lies, propaganda, first amendment, legal history

JEL Classification: K10, K31,

Suggested Citation

Witt, John Fabian, Weaponized from the Beginning (September 2, 2022). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4208158 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4208158

John Fabian Witt (Contact Author)

Yale University - Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-432-4944 (Phone)

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