Start here: “Under the conventional view of constitutional adjudication, dubious precedents enjoy a presumption of validity through the doctrine of stare decisis.” Okay, so much for the gospel regularly taught in law schools.
But there is another gospel — the one actually practiced by judges. (Somewhere the old Florentine grins.)
Now consider this: “[W]ithin the First Amendment context, there is no such presumption. When the Court concludes that a precedent reflects a cramped vision of expressive liberty, adherence to the past gives way. Unfettered speech, not legal continuity, is the touchstone.”
So contends Notre Dame Law School Professor Randy Kozel in a draft of an article titled “Second Thoughts About the First Amendment.” As his research reveals, “in recent years the Court has marginalized its prior statements regarding the constitutional value of false speech. It has revamped its process for identifying categorical exceptions to First Amendment protection. It has rejected its past decisions on corporate electioneering and aggregate campaign contributions. And it has revised its earlier positions on union financing, abortion protesting, and commercial speech.”
And why? What accounts for this purported demise of stare decisis? “The best explanation for this phenomenon,” say Professor Kozel, “is the role of free speech in the constitutional order. The Court’s tendency is to characterize affronts to expressive liberty as dangerous steps toward governmental repression and distortion. From this perspective, it is little wonder that the Court eschews continuity with the past. Legal stability may be significant, but official orthodoxy seems like an excessive price to pay.”
And is all of this a problem? Here is how the former Kozinski-Kennedy law clerk turned law professor answers that question: “Yet the Court’s practice raises serious questions. Departures from precedent can be problematic, especially when they become so frequent as to compromise the notion of constitutional law as enduring and impersonal. If the doctrine of stare decisis is to serve its core functions of stabilizing and unifying constitutional law across time, the desire to protect expressive liberty must yield, at least occasionally, to the need for keeping faith with the past.”
With a guarded measure of nuance, Professor Kozel adds: “For some, this state of affairs may be unobjectionable. There is no denying that robust expression is a core tenet of American legal and political culture. Still, there is something to be said for stare decisis, even when continuity comes at a hefty price.”
→ Of course there is more, much more in this thoughtful work-in-progress. I urge readers to take a look at it and send along your thoughts. Who knows, it might even make for an interesting topic for a future First Amendment salon?
Speaking of that salon, I may soon have some news on that front. Stay tuned.
Another great quote from Justice Jackson
[T]he very essence of constitutional freedom of press and of speech is to allow more liberty than the good citizen will take. The test of its vitality is whether we will suffer and protect much that we think false, mischievous and bad, both in taste and intent.
– Justice Robert Jackson, in-chambers opinion in Williamson v. United States (1950):
→ Hat tip to Eugene Volokh
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