Supreme Court Ideology and the Press

60 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2024 Last revised: 15 May 2024

See all articles by RonNell Andersen Jones

RonNell Andersen Jones

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law

Sonja West

University of Georgia School of Law

Date Written: March 15, 2024

Abstract

Among the elected branches and the broader public, positivity toward the press skews deeply ideological. The data make clear that most liberals favor the press while conservatives ordinarily view it more negatively—a divide that has only deepened in recent years. Conventional wisdom holds that this is also true within the government’s third branch, with the liberal justices of the United States Supreme Court championing the work of the press while their conservative colleagues threaten to erode its protections. Prominent historical examples, like the liberal justices who advanced press freedom in New York Times v. Sullivan as a companion principle to broader democracy-engagement and social-justice issues, buoy up this perception. Recent calls from some conservative justices to unwind these longstanding safeguards for newsgatherers amplify it further.

But the conventional wisdom is no longer true. Analysis of our dataset, coding the tone of every judicial opinion paragraph mentioning the press written by all 116 justices in the 235-year history of the Court, reveals a much more complicated relationship between the justices’ political ideologies and their attitudes toward the press. Mapping our data onto the ideology scores of justices throughout time does confirm that historically, ideology is highly correlated with a justice’s press positivity; but it also suggests that the once-vibrant liberal support for the press has disappeared. The current Court has entered an overall press-unfriendly period in which even those justices whose ideology would have predicted press friendliness a generation ago are less likely to be positive about the press. This Article explores those trends. It shows how the data deconstruct the myth of modern liberal judicial support for the press, examines how ideology has become a poorer predictor of press positivity, and explains how today’s less press-friendly Court has, over time, displaced the press-friendly Court of past generations. It reports and investigates a series of interrelated trends that reveal increasing negativity from the Court’s conservatives alongside an apparent gravitational pull toward press unfriendliness that now seems to keep even the current Court’s most liberal justices—who would have gone out of their way to praise the press or the press function a half century ago —from positively characterizing the press today. It also shows how the data belie some potential and initially appealing explanations for this decline, concluding that support for the press is simply no longer a meaningful component of liberalism on the Court. It has been decoupled from other liberal principles with which it once was connected. For most of the Court’s modern history, liberal judicial ideology included press positivity. Today, it does not.

Keywords: Supreme Court, press, press freedom, press positivity, empirical research, liberal justices, conservative justices, trends, ideology, First Amendment, Constitutional Law

JEL Classification: K00, K10, K40

Suggested Citation

Jones, RonNell Andersen and West, Sonja, Supreme Court Ideology and the Press (March 15, 2024). University of Georgia School of Law Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2024-3, University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 597, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4760952 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.4760952

RonNell Andersen Jones

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States
801-587-8756 (Phone)

Sonja West (Contact Author)

University of Georgia School of Law ( email )

225 Herty Drive
Athens, GA 30602
United States
(706) 542-5145 (Phone)
(706) 542-5556 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.law.uga.edu/academics/profiles/west.html

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