Judicial Problem: Defending Free Speech Is More Likely When Justices Agree With The Speech
from the doing-it-wrong dept
Democracy, as they say, is messy, but I think the messiest aspect of the American political system is the Supreme Court. Maybe messy isn’t the right word. Maybe baffling would be better. The reason for my thinking so is that, growing up, I was always under the impression that Supreme Court Justices were something they really aren’t. I pictured them as men and women of such knowledge and character that they were almost super-human. After all, these are the supreme-iest judges in the land; you’d think they’d be so far beyond you and I that they’d be almost incomprehensible. An idiot Senator? Sure, I can picture that. Some jackass President? Hell, we jackasses are the ones that vote them in, so sure. But the Supreme Court? Gods, right?
Of course not. It turns out, much to my unfortunate shock, that SCOTUS Justices are every bit as human as the rest of us and that they’re just as guilty as us when it comes to allowing ideologies cloud their judgement. One recent study looked at this, highlighting First Amendment cases to serve as an example.
The study considered 4,519 votes in 516 cases from 1953 to 2011. It was conducted by Professor Epstein, who is about to join the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis; Christopher M. Parker, a political scientist at Centenary College of Louisiana; and Jeffrey A. Segal, a political scientist at Stony Brook University.
That article highlighted Justice Scalia’s voting record, noting that he voted on free speech issues in favor of conservative speech sixty-five percent of the time, but only twenty-one percent of the time in favor of liberal speech. That said, don’t confuse that highlight to indicate that this is a problem only for conservative justices.
“While liberal justices are over all more supportive of free speech claims than conservative justices,” the study found, “the votes of both liberal and conservative justices tend to reflect their preferences toward the ideological groupings of the speaker.”
While this may represent a “duh” moment for many of us, it’s not a problem we should be ignoring. This pervasive kind of group bias represents a very real threat to the supreme law of the Untied States and, if recent trends on the polarization of politics is any indication, it’s only going to get worse. And, while many people might see this as (sigh) yet another opportunity to fall back on their stupid party lines and go to war with the guys on the other side of the aisle, here’s the question specifically about free speech that the article doesn’t address: what if the speech in question is something both sides disagree with?
Fun thought, right? The whole point of free speech rights is that they don’t go away even if you disagree with the speech, yet the study shows that there is a tendency for Justices to vote against speech with which they don’t agree. Take the famous case between the National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, for instance, and ask yourself whether you think that ruling, which allowed the Nazis to march and assemble in a largely Jewish community was the exception or the rule. It was an immensely important case, even though it allowed some truly horrific people to march in a community that would be most offended by their presence (though they never actually marched). That didn’t matter. The First Amendment is the First Amendment.
Would that same ruling occur today? The study paints an unfortunate picture.