Original Public Meaning

42 Pages Posted: 4 May 2024

See all articles by Lawrence B. Solum

Lawrence B. Solum

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: April 20, 2024

Abstract

“Original public meaning” has become increasingly important in constitutional discourse. This Article investigates the nature of original public meaning in three steps. First, each word in the phrase “original public meaning” is explicated and clarified. The word “original” represents the idea that the meaning of the constitutional text is fixed at the time each provision is framed and ratified. The word “public” signifies that the relevant meaning is ordinary meaning, the understanding of the text conveyed to the public at the time each provision was framed and ratified. The word “meaning” refers to the set of ideas (concepts and propositions) that constitute the communicative content of the constitutional text. The second step situates original public meaning in the context of normative constitutional theory, explaining its role in both Public Meaning Originalism and nonoriginalist constitutional theories. The third and final step investigates the foundations of original public meaning in the philosophy of language and theoretical linguistics, via an exploration of the distinctions between (a) speaker’s meaning and sentence meaning, (b) semantics and pragmatics, (c) sense and reference, and (d) conceptual meaning versus prototypical meaning.

Each of the three steps contributes to the articulation of a conception of original public meaning that aims at conceptual clarity, precision, and theoretical depth. The original public meaning of the constitutional text is the communicative content (the set of concepts and propositions) that was conveyed to the public at the time each provision was drafted, proposed, and ratified. Both semantics (the meaning of words and phrases) and pragmatics (meaning conveyed by context) play essential roles in the complex multistage process by which constitutional communication occurs. For public meaning originalists, the original public meaning of the text ought to bind constitutional actors, including judges, legislators, and executive officials. Sometimes, the recovery of original public meaning is relatively easy—the absence of linguistic drift, common sense, and the immediate context make the meaning of the constitutional text readily accessible to contemporary readers. But sometimes, the original public meaning of the constitutional text is difficult to discern, requiring both a deep reading of the constitutional record and careful application of the methods of historical linguistics.

Suggested Citation

Solum, Lawrence B., Original Public Meaning (April 20, 2024). Michigan State Law Review, Vol. 2023, No. 807, 2023, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4801641

Lawrence B. Solum (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States
(434) 924-7932 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.law.virginia.edu/faculty/profile/lbs5w/2846137

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