Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel

Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel

“With the receding of Warren court liberalism, free-speech law took a sharp right turn,” Professor Seidman wrote in a new article to be published in the Columbia Law Review. “Instead of providing a shield for the powerless, the First Amendment became a sword used by people at the apex of the American hierarchy of power. Among its victims: proponents of campaign finance reform, opponents of cigarette addiction, the L.B.G.T.Q. community, labor unions, animal rights advocates, environmentalists, targets of hate speech and abortion providers.”

The title of the article asked, “Can Free Speech Be Progressive?”

“The answer,” the article said, “is no.”

Shifting Right

The right turn has been even more pronounced under Chief Justice Roberts.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a larger share of First Amendment cases concerning conservative speech than earlier courts had, according to the study prepared for The Times. And it has ruled in favor of conservative speech at a higher rate than liberal speech as compared to earlier courts.

The court’s docket reflects something new and distinctive about the Roberts court, according to the study, which was conducted by Lee Epstein, a law professor and political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis; Andrew D. Martin, a political scientist at the University of Michigan and the dean of its College of Literature, Science and the Arts; and Kevin Quinn, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.

“The Roberts court — more than any modern court — has trained its sights on speech promoting conservative values,” the study found. “Only the current court has resolved a higher fraction of disputes challenging the suppression of conservative rather than liberal expression.”

The court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren from 1953 to 1969 was almost exclusively concerned with cases concerning liberal speech. Of its 60 free-expression cases, only five, or about 8 percent, challenged the suppression of conservative speech.

The proportion of challenges to restrictions on conservative speech has steadily increased. It rose to 22 percent in the court led by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger from 1969 to 1986; to 42 percent in the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist from 1986 to 2005; and to 65 percent in the Roberts court.

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