On Free Expression & the First Amendment — More Questions for Judge Posner


 The American concept of freedom of speech poses a challenge to the pragmatist because, like ‘democracy,’ it is the repository of a great deal of unpragmatic rhetoric. It is at the heart of the American ‘civil religion,’ a term well chosen to convey the moralistic fervor in which free speech is celebrated. — Richard Posner (2003)

This is the sixth installment in the “Posner on Posner” series of posts on Seventh Circuit Judge Richard Posner. The first installment can be found here, the second here, the third here, the fourth here, and the fifth one here.  

Here, as elsewhere, controversy is never far from the conceptual corner where Richard Posner lingers. Merely consider, for example, the following point he made in a 2001 article: “political free speech is not an unalloyed blessing.” Or consider his take on the most famous line from NYT v. Sullivan — he tags it (see below) “empty rhetoric.” Or think about his views on privacy and the First Amendment (see Glenn Greenwald’s criticisms below). Such comments are sure to raise skeptical eyebrows among the rah-rah First Amendment crowd.

Then again, that crowd happily hails the Judge for the robust defense of free speech he displayed in NAACP v. Button (1963), which he takes credit for authoring while he was a law clerk to Justice William Brennan. And then there are his opinions in cases such  American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick, the violent video game case. For staunch conservatives, such as Justice Clarence Thomas, protection of such expression “does not comport with the original public understanding of the First Amendment.” No matter, Posner paves his own path, sans any Hugo Black-like passion in defense of free speech or any Clarence Thomas-like zeal in defense of originalism.  

Of course, there is more to be said about Posner’s pragmatic approach to our free speech jurisprudence, and on that score some will approve and others not. In the tumble of it all, he remains a Maverick, which is how he likes it.  

Some of the Judge’s more notable writings on free expression can be found in the following works:

  1. Economic Analysis of Law (9th ed. 2014) (chapter 29)
  2. Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of a National Emergency (2009) (chapter 5)
  3. Law, Pragmatism and Democracy (2003) (chapter 10)
  4. Frontiers of Legal Theory (2001) (chapter 2)
  5. The Speech Market and the Legacy of Schenck,” in Lee Bollinger & Geoffrey Stone, eds., Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era 121 (2002)
  6. Pragmatism versus Purposivism in First Amendment Analysis,” 54 Stanford Law Review 737 (2002)
  7. Free Speech in an Economic Perspective,” 20 Suffolk University Law Review 1 (1986)

For a sampling of his First Amendment opinions, go here and search “First Amendment.”

Below are some questions, on the topic of free expression and the First Amendment, that I posed to the Judge followed by his replies. (Note: Some links will only open in Firefox or Chrome.)

NB: A segment of this post, quoting a well-known journalist, has been temporarily omitted because of a strong objection. I will explain why in this Monday’s post.      

Question: Is speech overprotected by our courts and in our culture?

Posner: I think so. The most notorious example is expenditures on political advertising — Citizens United and its sequels.

Question: Though the Pentagon Papers Case (1971) is much celebrated in First Amendment circles, you seem to think that the Court might have gone too far. Two questions:

  1. What is your criticism of the case?
  2. Does over classification of national security information raise a a First Amendment issue?


  1. I don’t think there is a right to read classified material. National security classification is one of many sensible exceptions to freedom of speech, along with threats, trade secrets, defamation, distribution of child pornography, lawful wiretapping and other lawful searches for communicative material, copyright infringement, and much else.
  2. It could, if there were no security justification.

Question: The so-called “war on terrorism” is unlike the Great Wars in that the enemy is ever changing and even hard to identify and the duration of the conflict is indeterminate. How does this affect the calculus of free speech “in wartime”?

Posner: I don’t see why the nature of the military conflict should make a difference.

Question: You have written that “some restrictions on speech actually promote speech.” That general idea seems to be getting some traction among egalitarian-minded liberal scholars dissatisfied with certain tenets of current free speech doctrine. Can you say more about your thinking here, especially as it might apply to the liberal defense of speech restrictions?

Posner: An obvious example is copyright protection, which restricts speech (the speech of copiers) but promotes speech overall by granting legal protection to original speech. Another obvious example is restricting the number of speakers in a political debate so that the debate won’t degenerate into an unintelligible babble of interruptions. Similarly one doesn’t want to allow the use of threats to silence people. A subtle example is the censorship of the Elizabethan theatre, which may well have promoted creativity by forcing playwrights like Shakespeare to situate contemporary problems in exotic times and places, in order to get by the censor.

Question: You pride yourself on being a “balancer,” as one who compares the social pluses and minuses of restrictions on free speech. Can you be an effective balancer absent a reliable record of the actual or even conjectural harms and benefits of speech? And what if the lawyers, as if often the case, tender no reliable empirical evidence one way or the other? Who wins, where is the conceptual default? Or must the reviewing court do its own research to resolve the question?

Posner: I don’t know how much empirical work has been done on the subject. In its absence, there is just guesswork, although the basic structure of American free speech law seems okay. Some of it strikes me as silly, notably granting rights of free speech to school kids.

[RKLC: 12-12-14: See William Baude’s commentary here.]

Question: Whatever its shortcomings, one of the benefits of a category-based approach to free speech (combined with certain tailoring tools, e.g., overbreath, etc.), is judicial efficiency. The rules are not unworkably open-ended and subjective, and are therefore relatively manageable for judges and lawyers alike.

  1. Mindful of that, how judicially efficient is your economic-based approach with its assorted variables? – e.g., taking into account and balancing the relevant benefits (B), harms (H), offensiveness (O), probability (P), the number of years between when speech occurs and when the harm is likely to materialize, and the administrative costs of a regulation (A).
  2. What about lawmakers, the focus of the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law . . . )? How likely are they to engage in such sophisticated cost-benefit analysis? Is your proposed approach a realistic test for them to employ in considering the constitutionality of proposed laws affecting speech?


  1. One can hardly exclude offensiveness, other harms, probability of harm, remoteness of harm, etc. from consideration, any more than you can do that in an ordinary tort case.
  2. Do lawmakers ever do sophisticated cost-benefit analysis?

Question: In cases such as Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project (2010), is the purported harm so great as to preclude any meaningful balancing? It was precisely that concern that prompted Justice Stephen Breyer to complain in dissent: “I believe the Court has failed to examine the Government’s justifications with sufficient care. It has failed to insist upon specific evidence, rather than general assertion.”

How would you weigh in on this? By your standards, was Holder a case of failed balancing?

Judge Learned Hand

Judge Learned Hand

Posner: I haven’t read the case.

Question: You have expressed some conceptual approval of Judge Learned Hand’s opinion in United States v. Dennis (1950) in which he upheld the convictions of eleven Communist Party leaders for violating the Smith Act. Do you agree with the judgment in that case? Please say a few words about why you agree or disagree with the Dennis judgment.

Posner: Hand’s formula in Dennis is I think fine—it is a variant of the famous Hand negligence formula from his opinion in Carroll Towing. The Communist Party leaders were essentially agents of the Soviet Union, so I don’t see why their speech should be thought privileged by the First Amendment.

Question: Don’t phrases like “clear and present danger” (which, by the way, was used by the attorney Benjamin W. Shaw in 1918) invite, as Paul Freund suggested in 1949, a kind of mantra-like application devoid of the kind of realist and pragmatic balancing you endorse?

Posner:  It’s a dumb phrase. A murky remote danger could be very great.

Question: Based on what you know in light of the book you edited on Holmes, did he get the judgments right in Schenck, Frohwerk and Debs?

Posner: Probably not in Schenck or Debs; I don’t recall Frohwerk.

Question: “Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open . . . .”

Do you consider those lines from New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964) to be “unpragmatic rhetoric”?

Posner: Empty rhetoric.

 Question: The Rehnquist and Roberts Courts have said relatively little about textualism when it comes to free speech and press issues. Why do you suppose that is?

Posner: There is no text. “Freedom of speech” is a heading, not a test.

Chief Justice John Roberts

Chief Justice John Roberts

Question: The Roberts Court has rendered 36 First Amendment free expression rulings. How would you characterize the First Amendment jurisprudence of the current Court?

Posner: Very nice for fat cats and enemies of abortion.

Question: You have long been on record as being a critic of the Court’s decision in Buckley v. Valeo (1976). You maintain that the “American system of campaign financing is extremely porous and is widely and probably correctly believed to constitute a thinly disguised system of quasi-bribes of elected officials; at the very least it tilts the playing field very steeply toward the wealthy and the well organized . . . .” Given that, how bad in your view have things become in light of rulings such as McCutcheon v. FEC (2014)?

Posner: Very bad.

Question: Do you favor some kind of constitutional amendment to remedy the problems you have identified

Posner: [The idea of a constitutional amendment is] a waste of time.

Posner on Roberts

Can so naive-seeming a conception of the political process reflect the actual beliefs of the intellectually sophisticated Chief Justice? Maybe so, but one is entitled to be skeptical. Obviously, wealthy businessmen and large corporations often make substantial political contributions in the hope (often fulfilled) that by doing so they will be buying the support of politicians for policies that yield financial benefits to the donors. [Source here]

Question: In his dissent in McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), Justice Breyer declared: “the First Amendment advances not only the individual’s right to engage in political speech, but also the public’s interest in preserving a democratic order in which collective speech matters.” What is you view on this idea “collective speech” and the First Amendment?

Posner: A little high-falutin’ for my taste. I would just say that large corporations and wealthy people shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections.

Question: Despite your criticisms of Buckley and its progeny, you have also expressed serious doubts about campaign finance reform proposals. Please explain why you think such efforts are problematic.

Posner: Have I? I don’t recall

Question: In Frontiers of Legal Theory you wrote: “Individuals or groups that have more money than the average amount of money have always had more than the average ability to spend money on trying to influence public opinion. We do not consider such inequality a compelling reason for limiting free speech.” Do you still believe that?

Posner: The mere fact of inequality is not critical. And it would be very difficult for a new candidate to get launched without access to substantial donors. The problems are the concealment of the identity of big donors, the implicit quid pro quo (donor is buying influence, and donee who is not influenced is unlikely to obtain substantial future donations), and the failure to place some ceiling on the amount of donations that a particular individual should be free to make. And I doubt that companies as distinct from individuals should be permitted to make campaign contributions.

Question: As you know, the speech in question in Citizens United involved a political documentary titled Hillary: The Movie. A conservative non-profit group sought to air it within 30 days of the primary. During oral arguments in the case, the question was asked: “What if the particular movie involved here had not been distributed by Video on Demand? Suppose that people could view it for free on Netflix over the Internet? Suppose that free DVDs were passed out. Suppose people could attend the movie for free in a movie theater; suppose the exact text of this was distributed in a printed form.”

 How would you answer that question? Is it your position that showing that political documentary and/or publishing a book on it during an election is not protected speech under the First Amendment?

Posner: The question is the scope of protection. I don’t think the First Amendment should be interpreted to prevent government from limiting the amount of broadcasting (or equivalent, like movies) in the last few weeks before a national election.

Question: What is your view of the secondary effects doctrine as it has been applied by the Court and lower courts since its use in Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc. (1986) and then again in Barnes v. Glen Theatre (1991), which overruled an opinion that you authored. In 1988, your former boss, Justice William Brennan, warned that the doctrine “could set the court on a road that will lead to the evisceration of First Amendment freedoms.” Do you agree? Where do you stand on this matter?

Posner: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it if it is supported by real evidence, though I think it was misapplied in the Barnes case because there wasn’t any evidence that nude dancing promotes crime to any significant extent.

The next installment, the seventh, in the Posner on Posner series was scheduled to be “On Judicial Reputation.” It will now be preceded by a special post on free speech and privacy.  

You may also like...

3 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    Just as their was a (Regrettably doomed) push to get Stevens’ home taken for use for a private business after Kelo, I would support stripping Posner of his free speech and privacy. Maybe he’d value those rights, if his own were ever threatened.

  2. Joe says:

    The move was against Souter … don’t know of any move made in that respect against Stevens.

    It is not apparently how we are supposed to strip Posner of his privacy/free speech in a way that would harm him in a way he is not willing to be harmed following his philosophy. Souter was willing to accept the local land use policy that might hurt him as many a local land use might. The revenge fantasy here seems silly.

    • Joe says:

      Query if there is a “spirit” of the “public use” provision that includes the principle that public use cannot involve private business (such as a railroad) also using the property or if “economic” use that benefits the public doesn’t count.