Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions

Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions

Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions

Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions


Describes landmark free speech decisions of the Supreme Court while highlighting the issues of language, rhetoric, and communication that underlie them. At the intersection of communication and First Amendment law reside two significant questions: What is the speech we ought to protect, and why should we protect it? The 20 scholars of legal communication whose essays are gathered in this volume propose various answers to these questions, but their essays share an abiding concern with a constitutional guarantee of free speech and its symbiotic relationship with communication practices. Free Speech on Trial fills a gap between textbooks that summarize First Amendment law and books that analyze case law and legal theory. These essays explore questions regarding the significance of unregulated speech in a marketplace of goods and ideas, the limits of offensive language and obscenity as expression, the power of symbols, and consequences of restraint prior to publication versus the subsequent punishment of sources. As one example, Craig Smith cites Buckley vs. Valeo to examine how the context of corruption in the 1974 elections shaped the Court's view of the constitutionality of campaign contributions and expenditures. Collectively, the essays in this volume suggest that the life of free speech law is communication. The contributors reveal how the Court's free speech opinions constitute discursive performances that fashion, deconstruct, and reformulate the contours and parameters of the Constitution's guarantee of free expression and that, ultimately, reconstitute our government, our culture, and our society.


This collection of essays evolved from a panel presentation on “The Most Important Free-Speech Decisions of the Supreme Court” at the 1999 convention of the National Communication Association. Happily, eight of the nine scholars who originally presented in Chicago remained with the project; their essays appear in print here for the first time. They are joined by twelve colleagues who share an interest in scholarly investigations at the intersection of communication studies and the law.

Each essay focuses on one or two landmark Supreme Court cases. Contributors were asked to address two questions: Why are these cases important to the evolution of freedom of expression in America? How do communication theory and free speech law interrelate within the context of the cases?

In the introduction to this collection of essays, Franklyn Haiman provides much needed historical perspective to the project as he relives the origins of communication scholarship in First Amendment law. Haiman also explores some of the insights that communication scholars contribute to questions of the law.

My essay “Communication Studies and Free Speech Law” offers a brief theoretical prologue to, and historical survey of, contributors' methodologies. It also summarizes each contributor's theoretical perspective.

The 19 essays that focus on landmark cases in free speech law constitute the heart of the project. The essayists employ three major approaches and frequently combine these in fruitful ways. One procedure is to describe and interpret the situation and context of the communicative events that precipitated the conflict between the state and the accused. A second method is to analyze implicit communication theories that reside in judicial opinions. The third strategy is to demonstrate how judicial opinions have advanced our understanding of what communication is and how it functions in a democratic society.

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