Category: First Amendment


Tempest in Tempe: First Amendment in the Desert

In the spirit of the excellent colloquy here about Marvin’s thinking on First Amendment architectures, I bring up this news item: Arizona State University blocked both Web access to, and e-mail from, the Web site. ASU students had begun a petition demanding that the university reduce tuition. The university essentially made three claims as to why it did so (below, in order of increasing stupidity):

  1. It was a technical mistake;
  2. was spamming ASU; and
  3. ASU needs to “protect the use of our limited and valuable network resources for legitimate academic, research and administrative uses.”

#1 and #2 run together. If spam is the problem, you don’t need to block access to the Web site. However, if you are concerned that students are going to read the petition, and sign it, you do need to block access to the Web site.

For #2, sorry, ASU, this isn’t spam. Spam is unsolicited bulk commercial e-mail. is, allegedly, sending unsolicited political e-mail. And that’s protected by the First Amendment – see, for example, the Virginia Supreme Court’s analysis of that state’s anti-spam law that covered political messages. Potential political spammers have a sharp disincentive to fill recipient’s inboxes – it’s a sure-fire way to annoy them into opposing your position.

For #3, ASU doesn’t get to determine what academic and research uses are “legitimate.” If they throttle P2P apps, that’s fine. If they limit file sizes for attachments, no problem. But deciding that the message from is not “legitimate” is classic, and unconstitutional, viewpoint discrimination.

This looks like censorship. I think it’s more likely to be stupidity: someone in ASU’s IT department decided to block these messages as spam, and to filter outbound Web requests to the site contained within those messages. But: with great power over the network comes great responsibility. Well-intentioned constitutional violations are still unlawful. It would also help if ASU’s spokesperson simply admitted the mistake rather than engaging in idiotic justification.

As I mention in Orwell’s Armchair, public actors are increasingly important sources of Internet access. But when ASU and other public universities take on the role of ISP, they need to remember that they are not AOL: their technical decisions are constrained not merely by tech resources, but by our commitment to free speech. Let’s hope the Sun Devils cool off on the filtering…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.


Free Speech Architecture – Responses

I am excited about the great points made so far here on Concurring Opinions, and want to again extend my thanks to Danielle and everyone who has participated. I’m speaking on the paper in a few hours, and then plan to engage the points made by Marc, Tim, and Zephyr. I hope we’ll be able to continue these discussions well into future.

(Government) Speech Spaces

In terms of free speech architecture, I think the developing “government speech” principle poses some important questions.  Under this principle, some spaces are principally reserved for government speech rather than public discourse.  Are government speech spaces exceptions to the doctrine Marvin otherwise views optimistically, a separate aspect of speech architecture, not part of speech architecture at all, or simply products of a flawed doctrine or principle? 

I recognize that at this point the governmental speech architecture is not very well-developed.  But its foundation is coming into clearer focus.  In some spaces, including the workplace and a small public park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, the Supreme Court has exempted certain government decisions from free speech scrutiny on the ground that the spaces do not function as forums for public speech, but rather as government speech spaces.  As I have argued elsewhere, at least on a conceptual level the Pleasant Grove decision comes close to turning a traditional public forum into a governmental forum.  Given its uncertain parameters, a host of other spaces might be affected by the government speech principle.  These might include some virtual spaces, such as government websites, that might otherwise serve as forums for public discussion.  Under the developing government speech principle, the more involved the government is in terms of funding, managing, and controlling speech activity in a particular space, the more plausible its argument that access may be denied — even on the basis of content.  

Perhaps this is just a small wrinkle with regard to speech architecture.  Or perhaps the government speech principle will create some significant cracks or holes in the archictecure.  Either way, I wonder what, if anything, Marvin thinks this doctrine says about the government’s relationsip to speech spaces.


Free Speech Architecture: Universal Access to Speech Spaces (#7)

So far I have discussed four principles concerning speech spaces (and Brett has added one). This is the fifth principle concerning speech spaces that I set out in my recent article. The First Amendment encourages access for all Americans to physical and digital speech spaces, even if the “unregulated” speech market would not provide access to many speakers. Those that benefit most from government efforts to expand universal access to speech spaces are speakers in rural areas or those without extensive means.

The traditional public forum doctrine, of course, promotes universality. Streets and parks are open to all, and they provide small, unpopular, or poorly financed speakers with an opportunity for a forum. These speakers often won’t have access to other speech spaces, like broadcast channels or newspapers. But government’s work towards achieving universal speech spaces has not been limited to public forums.
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Distinguishing Magarian’s “Ought” from Ammori’s “Ought”

Timothy Zick and Greg Magarian make some great points in their recent posts. For those unfamiliar with Zick or Magarian, they are two of the most important and insightful thinkers writing about the First Amendment today, evidenced even in these brief posts. I’m going to respond to Greg’s first.

Greg’s piece accuses me of being overly optimistic, and for misinterpreting First Amendment precedent and doing so for (misguided) strategic reasons. He assures us that First Amendment precedent is awful and getting worse. He says I should just admit as much, and that I should argue merely that the precedent “ought” to be better, not that it “is” any good at all. And his examples of the awfulness of doctrine include Citizens United (which I disagree with, but don’t dwell on as it is not so clearly “spatial,” the focus of the paper) and also points to the public forum cases.

We agree in part actually, but disagree in part. Here is where I disagree: I am more likely to celebrate what the doctrine is but not out of misguided strategy but because he thinks doctrine ought to be something different from what I think it ought to be.

A few years go, Greg and I had a discussion over dinner. At that dinner, he said that the courts should impose media access rules directly, based on the First Amendment alone, whether or not a law would create that access rule. I said that generally such access rules should be permissible, but not judicially required. My argument was based partly on institutional competence: judges are not really expert in media policy. Judges and clerks are not at the top of my list for people who should devise spectrum policy or  draft the communications regulations. And I think the public should indeed be more involved in making such decisions of designing our speech systems–and other institutions are designed to be more responsive to the public. Greg thinks courts ought to impose access rules and other rules; I think, subject to some limits, courts ought to defer to a range of permissible decisions by legislatures and agencies about such rules. This is why Greg takes me to task for celebrating the shopping mall case: I am less troubled that the courts did not directly impose access for speech but merely permitted governments to enact laws requiring access.

This is why Greg says, “But when the Supreme Court faced the question whether the First Amendment required shopping centers to tolerate expressive activity, the Court said no.  So yes, First Amendment law sometimes steps out of the way of voluntary government efforts to advance speech interests over other interests.” To me, that is important. Courts and lawyers often argue (or assume) that the First Amendment flat out forbids government from opening new spaces for speech–particularly digital spaces.  That the First Amendment does not forbid such action says something about the First Amendment–just as it not requiring access to shopping malls says something about the Amendment. And, in my opinion (and in that of some others), this permissiveness contradicts the notion that government must not pursue substantive speech-based goals, such as opening speech spaces, when they interfere with the speech market. For Greg, such permissiveness “doesn’t contradict or even complicate the negative liberty paradigm,” but I see it differently.

Finally, we do agree on a few things. The doctrine as it is could be better. I don’t think it’s perfect and it is certainly not getting better, but there are important strains in the doctrine, particularly regarding government discretion to promote diversity of sources, universal access, national and local speech, and simply additional speech spaces. There are far too many cases in our First Amendment tradition that uphold censorship. Far too many cases enable government to silence speech based on content-neutral reasons (something Tim has argued forcefully in his work on public spaces). And I am almost ashamed to engage in any comparative institutional analysis–weighing whether the Supreme Court is a better decision-making institution than the Congress is like asking whether the institution that brought us Bush v. Gore, Citizens United, and Holder v. Humanitarian Project should be trusted more than the institution, Congress, with a 9% approval rating that brought us the debt ceiling fiasco, nonstop gridlock, that recently rushed to pass a censorial copyright bill before being derailed (and had passed immunity for warrantless wiretapping and provided the president with the power to hold US citizens indefinitely without a trial).  Still, for reasons mentioned above, regarding the permissibility of opening speech spaces for speech, I am willing to be more optimistic than my friend Greg, though he does provide some excellent reasons for pessimism.


Architectural Trusteeship

With regard to traditional public forum spaces, the Supreme Court has imposed certain duties on governments as “trustees.”  These duties include a responsibility to ensure access to public parks, streets, and (most) sidewalks, and adherence to a principle of anti-discrimination (although it may not include a duty to preserve any forum spaces in perpetuity, or require diversity of speech or speakers).  The trusteeship principle is problematic in the sense that it continues what I (and others) believe to be the categorical error of treating forum doctrine as a matter of property principles, rather than deeper spatial concerns.  However, the principle does provide a basis for imposing some obligation on government to open, maintain, and perhaps preserve certain spaces.

In an earlier post, I noted some of the benefits of Marvin’s broad conception of spatial architecture.  Here I raise a potential complication.  With regard to public forum spaces, the trustee concept arises principally from the fact of governmental ownership and the need for minimal access for exercise of fundamental rights of speech, assembly, and petition.  Trusteeship is rooted in the special nature of these places, in particular their historical connection to First Amendment liberties.  I wonder what normative or other basis exists for treating other speech spaces in a similar manner.  In other words, on what basis can government be said to have an obligation (whether judicially enforceable or not) of some sort to open and diversify not only traditional public forum spaces but  new spaces, virtual spaces, private spaces, and regulated (but not publicly owned) spaces?  I undertand from Marvin’s account that the doctrine can be interpreted to support this result, and that legislators can be “constitutional norm entrepreneurs.”  But to impose or argue for diversity, sufficiency, and other requirements across a broad range of channels and spaces, don’t we need a trusteeship principle, or something like it, for the entire architecture?  Can one be found in, or fashioned from, doctrine or other sources?


One more principle: Nondiscrimination

There is one principle that I would add to the five that Marvin examines in the article:  nondiscrimination.  It seems to me that across public and private, physical and virtual “space” contexts (and judicial opinions), one persistent principle is that nondiscriminatory approaches to sustaining spaces, platforms, … infrastructures are presumptively legit and normatively attractive — whether government efforts to “sustain” involve public provisioning, subsidization or regulation.

I recognize that this might seem to tread too close to the negative liberty / anti-censorship model, but in my view, it helps connect the anti-censorship model with the pro-architecture model.  We should worry when government micro-manages speech and chooses winners and losers, but macro-managing/structuring the speech environment is unavoidable.  A nondiscrimination principle guides the latter (macro-management) to avoid the former (micro-management).

This sixth principle is implicit is the other five that Marvin discusses.  It’s not articulated as a stand-alone principle, uniform across situations, or even defined completely.  Nonetheless, nondiscrimination of *some* sort is part of the spatial analysis for each principle. For example, in the paper, when Marvin discusses designated public spaces, he says that government can designate spaces–so long as it does so in a nondiscriminatory way. The nondiscrimination principle here is limited: government cannot discriminate based on the limited notion of “content.”  Another example is limited public forums where government cannot discriminate on viewpoint, but can set aside a forum for particular speakers based on the expected content (say students / educational content).  There are other examples that Marvin explores in the paper.  In my view, there is something fundamental about nondiscrimnation and the functional role that it plays that warrants further attention.

Frankly, the idea of a nondiscrimination principle connects with my own ideas about the First Amendment being aimed at sustaining infrastructure commons and the many different types of spillovers from speech–or more broadly, sustaining a spillover-rich cultural environment;  I explored those ideas in an essay and I expand on them in the book.   It is important to make clear that government support for infrastructure commons — whether by direct provisioning or by common carrier style regulation — lessens pressure on both governments and markets to pick winners and losers in the speech marketplace/environment, and as Marvin argues, that is something that is and ought to be fundamental or core in any FA model.


Speech and Spatiality

I too want to thank Danielle and Concurring Opinions for hosting this discussion.  I think Marvin has addressed a really timely and important topic, speech spaces and architecture, in his forthcoming article.  As readers can tell from his posts here and elsewhere, and from reading the piece, Marvin challenges a fair amount of what passes for conventional wisdom in the free speech area.  I look forward to discussing his thesis and some of its implications.  In this post, I want to address why the framing of the issues Marvin addresses as distinctly spatial ones is critically important.  

In my own work on speech and spatiality, I have focused on the importance to freedom of speech, assembly, and petition of access to public parks and plazas (public forums).  Marvin’s conception of speech spaces is much broader.  It includes not only these traditional forums, but various channels of communication.  Thus, he provides an expansive conception of free speech spaces, one that extends far beyond my own conception of the “expressive topography.”   Under Marvin’s conception, newspapers, broadcast and cable stations, the U.S. mail, and the Internet are all speech spaces.  Thay are part of our expressive architecture.  By treating these channels as spaces or places rather than simply mediums of expression, Marvin begins to push against traditional conceptual boundaries.  By framing the discussion in terms of spataility, he begins the process of rearranging conceptual, theoretical, and doctrinal boundaries.   

The central payoffs from this conceptual framing are two-fold.  Read More


Thoughts on Ammori’s Free Speech Architecture and the Golan decision

Thank you to Marvin for an excellent article to read and discuss, and thank you Concurring Opinions for providing a public forum for our discussion.

In the article, the critical approach that Marvin takes to challenge the “standard” model of the First Amendment is really interesting. He claims that the standard model of the First Amendment focuses on preserving speakers’ freedom by restricting government action and leaves any affirmative obligations for government to sustain open public spaces to a patchwork of exceptions lacking any coherent theory or principles. A significant consequence of this model is that open public spaces for speech—I want to substitute “infrastructure” for “spaces”–are marginalized and taken for granted. My forthcoming book—Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources–explains why such marginalization occurs in this and various other contexts and develops a theory to support the exceptions. But I’ll leave those thoughts aside for now and perhaps explore them in another post. And I’ll leave it to the First Amendment scholars to debate Marvin’s claim about what is the standard model for the First Amendment.

Instead, I would like to point out how a similar (maybe the same) problem can be seen in the Supreme Court’s most recent copyright opinion. In Golan v. Holder , Justice Ginsburg marginalizes the public domain in a startlingly fashion. Since it is a copyright case, the “model” is flipped around: government is empowered to grant exclusive rights (and restrict some speakers’ freedom) and any restrictions on the government’s power to do so is limited to narrow exceptions, i.e., the idea-expression distinction and fair use. A central argument in the case was that the public domain itself is another restriction. The public domain is not expressly mentioned in the IP Clause of the Constitution, but arguably, it is implicit throughout (Progress in Science and the Useful Arts, Limited Times). Besides, the public domain is inescapably part of the reality that we stand on the shoulders of generations of giants. Most copyright scholars believed that Congress could not grant copyright to works in the public domain (and probably thought that the issue raised in the case – involving restoration for foreign works that had not been granted copyright protection in the U.S — presented an exceptional situation that might be dealt with as such). But the Court declined to rule narrowly and firmly rejected the argument that “the Constitution renders the public domain largely untouchable by Congress.” In the end, Congress appears to have incredibly broad latitude to exercise its power, limited only by the need to preserve the “traditional contours.”

Of course, it is much more troublesome that the Supreme Court (rather than scholars interpreting Supreme Court cases) has adopted a flawed conceptual model that marginalizes basic public infrastructure. We’re stuck with it.


Censorship on the March

Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.

Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.