Speech as Conduct: Generally Applicable Laws, Illegal Courses of Conduct, Situation-Altering Utterances, and the Uncharted Zones

70 Pages Posted: 22 Oct 2004

See all articles by Eugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law


Speech, some argue, should sometimes lose its First Amendment protection because it's really just conduct. These arguments have been made for a wide range of speech: (1) racially and sexually offensive speech in workplaces, universities, and places of public accommodation; (2) speech that informs people how certain crimes can be committed; (3) speech that teaches children harmful ideas; (4) speech that lobbies against housing for the disabled; (5) speech that advocates crime; (6) doctors' speech recommending medicinal marijuana to their patients; (7) speech that urges political boycotts; and even (8) public porfanity.

This article will discuss several such "this speech is really conduct" theories. First, it responds to the argument that generally applicable laws, which apply to speech alongside other conduct, should be free from First Amendment scrutiny even when they cover speech because of its persuasive, informative, or offensive content. The article argue that such an argument is unsound, and inconsistent with many leading free speech cases. Restrictions that are content-based as applied should be treated the same way as restrictions that are content-based on their face.

Second, the article responds to the argument that various kinds of speech should be punishable because they are part of an illegal course of conduct, speech brigaded with action, or speech act[s] rather than pure speech; such arguments often quote Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co. (1949). The article criticizes Giboney, and concludes that if such an illegal course of conduct doctrine should be recognized, it should be narrow indeed - so narrow that it wouldn't apply to most of the cases where Giboney is cited.

Third, the article discusses, and to some extent critiques, Professor Kent Greenawalt's view that certain kinds of statements are situation-altering utterances and thus unprotected conduct. Finally, the article confronts the uncharted zones of free speech - criminal agreements, criminal solicitation, much verbal aiding and abetting, professional speech, and the like - and suggests that these zones are best dealt with by recognizing properly bounded First Amendment exceptions (as the Court has done with regard to libel, incitement, fighting words, and the like), and not by relabeling the speech as conduct.

Suggested Citation

Volokh, Eugene, Speech as Conduct: Generally Applicable Laws, Illegal Courses of Conduct, Situation-Altering Utterances, and the Uncharted Zones. Cornell Law Review, Vol. 90, 2005. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=608742

Eugene Volokh (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States
310-206-3926 (Phone)
310-206-6489 (Fax)

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