Jack M. Balkin


Digital Speech and Democratic Culture

Jack M. Balkin

A Theory of Freedom of Expression for the Information Society

In this essay, Professor Balkin argues that digital technologies alter the social conditions of speech and thereforeshould change the focus of free speech theory, from a Meiklejohnian or republican concern with protecting democratic process and democratic deliberation, to a larger concern with protecting and promoting a democratic culture. A democratic culture is a culture in which individuals have a fair opportunity to participate in the forms of meaning-making that constitute them as individuals. Democratic culture is about individual liberty as well as collective self-governance; it concerns each individual’s ability to participate in the production and distribution of culture. Balkin argues that Meiklejohn and his followers were influenced by the social conditions of speech produced by the rise of mass media in the twentieth century, in which only a relative few could broadcast to large numbers of people. Republican or progressivist theories of free speech also tend to downplay the importance of nonpolitical expression, popular culture, and individual liberty. The limitations of this approach have become increasingly apparent in the age of the Internet.

By changing the social conditions of speech, digital technologies lead to new social conflicts over the ownership and control of informational capital. The free speech principle is the battleground over many of these conflicts. For example, media companies have interpreted the free speech principle broadly to combat regulation of digital networks and narrowly in order to protect and extend their intellectual property rights. The digital age greatly expands the possibilities for individual participation in the growth and spread of culture, and thus greatly expands the possibilities for the realization of a truly democratic culture. But the same technologies also produce new methods of control that can limit democratic cultural participation. Therefore, free speech values-interactivity, mass participation, and the ability to modify and transform culture-must be protected through technological design and through administrative and legislative regulation of technology, as well as through the more traditional method of judicial creation and recognition of constitutional rights. Increasingly, freedom of speech will depend on the design of the technological infrastructure that supports the system of free expression and secures widespread democratic participation. Institutional limitations of courts will prevent them from reaching the most important questions about how that infrastructure is designed and implemented. Safeguarding freedom of speech will thus increasingly fall to legislatures, administrative agencies, and technologists.

The Reconstruction Power

Jack M. Balkin

Modern doctrine has not been faithful to the text, history, and structure of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. These amendments were designed to give Congress broad powers to protect civil rights and civil liberties; together they form Congress’s Reconstruction Power.

Congress gave itself broad powers because it believed it could not trust the Supreme Court to protect the rights of the freedmen. The Supreme Court soon realized Congress’s fears, limiting not only the scope of the Reconstruction Amendments but also Congress’s powers to enforce them in decisions like  United States v. Cruikshank and the Civil Rights Cases. Due to these early cases, Congress was often forced to use its Commerce Power to protect civil rights. Modern decisions beginning with City of Boerne v. Flores and United States v. Morrison have compounded these errors.

When we strip away these doctrinal glosses and look at the original meaning and structural purposes underlying the Reconstruction Amendments, we will discover that the Reconstruction Power gives Congress all the authority it needs to pass modern civil rights laws, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was the original point of these amendments, and that should be their proper construction today.

When it enforces the Reconstruction Amendments, Congress is not limited to remedying or preventing state violations of rights. It has long been recognized that Congress may reach private conduct through its Thirteenth Amendment powers to eradicate the badges and incidents of slavery. But Congress also has the power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause—a guarantee of equal citizenship that, like the Thirteenth Amendment, contains no state action requirement. The Citizenship Clause, designed to secure equality of citizenship for freedmen, gives Congress the corresponding power to protect the badges and incidents of citizenship. Congress may therefore ban discriminatory private conduct that it reasonably believes will contribute to or produce second-class citizenship.

In addition to having powers to enforce the Citizenship Clause, Congress also may reach private action to prevent interference with federal constitutional rights. Along with its powers to enforce the Guarantee Clause, Congress may therefore reach private violence designed to deter political participation, terrorize political opponents, or undermine representative government.

The failure of state and local governments to guarantee equal protection of the laws was a central concern of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, and giving Congress the power to remedy this violence was thus one of the central purposes of the amendment. Today, this same power enables Congress to pass laws banning violence directed at women and other federal hate crimes legislation.

Finally, because of institutional differences between courts and legislatures, Congress may implement the state action requirement more broadly than courts currently do, for example, by imposing antidiscrimination norms on government contractors and operators of public accommodations. For this reason Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination in public accommodations, is not only a legitimate exercise of Congress’s power to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment; it is a paradigmatic example of that power.

The Supreme Court did not reach these questions in 1964 because it feared that overturning old precedents like the 1883  Civil Rights Cases would encourage Southern resistance to the new Civil Rights Act. But we should have no such compunction today. It is long past time to remedy the Supreme Court’s errors, and reconstruct the great Reconstruction Power of the Constitution.