The following remarks were delivered at Yale Law School on Saturday, October 24, 2015 on the occasion of Floyd Abrams receiving the Yale Law School Association Award of Merit. Previous recipients include Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, and Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. The remarks below are posted with Mr. Abrams’ permission.
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My ticket of admission to this party today appears to be the First Amendment so I thought I’d distill all my learning on the subject into a five minute presentation. Draw what conclusions you choose from my presumption in doing so – the notion of a five-minute tour of the First Amendment may be a first in and of itself – but here we go.
First, we’re lucky, really lucky, to have it. Not just because it’s a good thing that we have a First Amendment, although of course it is, but because we came so perilously close to not having it at all. It’s worth recalling that the states that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to draft a Constitution unanimously voted not to have a bill of rights at all. Why, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84, “declare that things should not be done which there is no power to do”? “Why,” he asked, “should it be said that liberty of the press should not be restrained when no power is given by which such restrictions may be imposed?” Only the unyielding position by Jefferson and others that, in Jefferson’s words, “a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth” led to the adoption of any bill of rights, let alone one with a First Amendment.
Second, for all of its 18th century lineage, the First Amendment may be best understood – I know Justice Scalia would not approve – as a 20th century, even second half of the 20th century, document. It wasn’t seriously cited in any number of Supreme Court opinions as a bulwark against government overreach until the enduring Holmes and Brandeis opinions (often in dissent) in the 1920’s; it wasn’t applied to the states until the 1920’s; and the first federal law held to be unconstitutional based on the First Amendment did not occur until 1965.
Third, the First Amendment is negative in nature. It says “Congress shall make no law” on purpose. It doesn’t promise freedom of the press; it promises that the government will not abridge it. That leaves lots of room for interpretation. But it does not permit the conclusion – sorry about this, Justice Breyer – that “first and foremost, the First Amendment seeks to facilitate self-government” by “encouraging the exchange of information and ideas which are necessary for citizens themselves to shape “public opinion” No.
The First Amendment certainly facilitates self-government. It certainly helps in the shaping of public opinion. But first and foremost, it does so by putting free speech and free press, as Madison put it, “beyond the reach of this Government.”
Over half a century ago, the essayist Norman Cousins put it this way: It is not “that democracy lacks affirmative values. The affirmative values are many and varied, but they all rest on a solid bedrock of restraints upon government.”
Fourth, any bill of rights and any First Amendment is only meaningful if the government it purports to limit is prepared to obey it – to treat it as binding law. Consider this alternative to the First Amendment: “Citizens are guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, demonstration and of association.” Not bad, right? But that’s to be found in Article 67 of the Constitution of North Korea, one of the world’s truly despotic, murderous and freedom-destroying nations. Its asserted protection of free speech is a lie, nothing less, since, it is rooted neither in any concept of law, let alone individual liberty.
To return to my beginning: We are a lucky people in so many ways. I am lucky and so are you to have attended this great institution. And we’re all lucky to live in a nation in which freedom of speech is so rightly revered.
© Floyd Abrams, 2015