FAN 105 (First Amendment News) Forthcoming: Tushnet, Chen & Blocher, “Beyond Words” — The Art of Protecting Non-Speech as Speech
[T]he exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion. — Justice Joseph McKenna (1915), for a unanimous Court
Are paintings protected by the First Amendment?
What about music?
And photography and films?
Of course! But wait, what about the words (and they are words) of the First Amendment?
Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
Recall that at first the Court rejected the idea that expression beyond words (verbal or printed) was entitled to constitutional protection — see Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio (1915). Thankfully, that case gave constitutional way to Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson (1952) and its progeny. But did either the logic or theory of the law ever catch up with its application?
Enter Harvard Law Professor Mark Tushnet, University of Denver Law Professor Alan K. Chen and Duke University Law Professor Joseph Blocher. They have a new book coming out next year; its title: Free Speech Beyond Words: The Surprising Reach of the First Amendment (NYU Press, February 14, 2017). Here is an abstract:
“The Supreme Court has unanimously held that Jackson Pollock’s paintings, Arnold Schöenberg’s music, and Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” are “unquestionably shielded” by the First Amendment. Nonrepresentational art, instrumental music, and nonsense: all receive constitutional coverage under an amendment protecting “the freedom of speech,” even though none involves what we typically think of as speech—the use of words to convey meaning.”
“As a legal matter, the Court’s conclusion is clearly correct, but its premises are murky, and they raise difficult questions about the possibilities and limitations of law and expression. Nonrepresentational art, instrumental music, and nonsense do not employ language in any traditional sense, and sometimes do not even involve the transmission of articulable ideas. How, then, can they be treated as ‘speech’ for constitutional purposes? What does the difficulty of that question suggest for First Amendment law and theory? And can law resolve such inquiries without relying on aesthetics, ethics, and philosophy?”
“Comprehensive and compelling, this book represents a sustained effort to account, constitutionally, for these modes of “speech.” While it is firmly centered in debates about First Amendment issues, it addresses them in a novel way, using subject matter that is uniquely well suited to the task, and whose constitutional salience has been under-explored. Drawing on existing legal doctrine, aesthetics, and analytical philosophy, three celebrated law scholars show us how and why speech beyond words should be fundamental to our understanding of the First Amendment.”
→ See also, Justin Marceau & Alan K. Chen, “Free Speech and Democracy in the Video Age,” Columbia Law Review (2016).
- Laura Wittern-Keller, Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981 (University Press of Kansas, 2008)
- Jessica J. Hwang, “From Spectacle to Speech: The First Amendment and Film Censorship from 1915–1952,” Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly (2014)
Also Forthcoming: Stone on Sex . . . & the Constitution
When it comes to sexual expression, “it has taken us almost two centuries to get back to where we were at the time of the Founding.” — Geoffrey Stone
It has been in the works for a long time. I’m referring to Professor Geoffrey Stone’s next book: Sexing the Constitution.
It is a monumental work and will be published by Liveright (W.W.W. Norton). The book’s editor is Philip Marino. (Norton published Professor Stone’s Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (2005)).
Here is some advance publicity on the book, due out in April of next year.
Sexing the Constitution illuminates how the clash between sex and religion has defined our nation’s historyRenowned constitutional scholar Geoffrey R. Stone traces the evolution of legal and moral codes that have attempted to legislate sexual behavior from the ancient world to America’s earliest days to today’s fractious political climate. Stone crafts a remarkable, often thrilling, narrative in which he shows how agitators, moralists, legislators, and, especially, the justices of the Supreme Court have navigated issues as explosive and divisive as abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and contraception.
Overturning a raft of contemporary shibboleths, Stone reveals that at the time the Constitution was adopted there were no laws against obscenity and no laws against abortion before the mid-point of pregnancy. A pageant of historical characters, including Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson, Anthony Comstock, Margaret Sanger, J. Edgar Hoover, Phyllis Schlafly, and Justice Anthony Kennedy, enliven this landmark work that dramatically reveals how our laws about sex, religion, and morality reflect the paradoxes and cultural schisms that have cleaved our nation from its founding.
* * * *
I asked Professor Stone if he might add a few words about the free-speech portion of the book. Here is what he was shared with me on that front:
“Sexing the Constitution explores the relationship between sex, religion, and law from ancient times to the present. From the free speech perspective, the focus is, of course, on sexual expression. Sexing the Constitution shows how in the Greek and Roman world there were no limits to the explicitness of sexual expression, and that for the most part this remained true in Western culture through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, despite a wide range of sexually explicit material.”
“English law did not recognize the concept of obscenity until the eighteenth century, and even then it was rarely invoked. Although sexual material was widely available in the American colonies, there were no prosecutions for obscenity, and, indeed, no laws against obscenity in the United States until the evangelical fervor of the Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century.”
“After the Civil War, in an era of severe moralism marked by the actions of Anthony Comstock, laws against sexual expression proliferated for the first time. These laws were so strict that they forbade any discussion of sex in any form and banned even the discussion of contraception. This suppression eventually led to sharp battles over the propriety of such restrictions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For the most part, though, these battles were over the question of statutory interpretation rather than constitutional law.”
“The Supreme Court, of course, got involved in 1957 in the Roth case when the Court for the first time suggested that the regulation of sexual expression might violate the First Amendment. As Sexing the Constitution shows, through a combination of constitutional doctrine and the effects of technology, it has taken us almost two centuries to get back to where we were at the time of the Founding.”