Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

Veil of Ignorance: Tunnel Constructivism in Free Speech Theory

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

Veil of Ignorance: Tunnel Constructivism in Free Speech Theory

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT-Modern free speech theory is dominated in the courts and the academy alike by a constructivist style of reasoning: it posits a few axiomatic purposes of speech and from these deduces detailed rules of law. This way of thinking can make the law blind to the actual consequences of legal rules and damage both individual liberty and democracy. I develop this claim through a critique of the work of Martin Redish, who has developed the most sustained and sophisticated constructivist theory of free speech. Free speech constructivism is not the only way to understand the First Amendment. It is a fairly recent development, emerging only in the 1970s. The idea of free speech, on the other hand, dates back to Milton's arguments in the 1640s. This Article identifies the pathologies of constructivism and recovers an older, more attractive free speech tradition.

Thanks most of all to Martin Redish, who, in many conversations and in comments on an earlier draft, has generously abetted the development of a thesis that he regards as tragically misguided. This Article could not have been written without his help. It is affectionately dedicated to him.


Modern free speech theory is dominated, in the courts and the academy alike, by a style of reasoning that posits a few axiomatic purposes of speech: "It is the purpose of the First Amendment to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail . . . ."1 "The right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of the broader concept of 'individual freedom of mind.'"2 "The right of citizens to inquire, to hear, to speak, and to use information to reach consensus is a precondition to enlightened self- government and a necessary means to protect it."3 From these axioms one deduces detailed rules of law and deems irrelevant any consequences that were not taken account of in that deduction. This way of thinking, which I will call "tunnel constructivism," can damage both individual liberty and democracy.

Tunnel constructivism is a subset of a broader kind of political theory, called "constructivism" by John Rawls, that tries to derive concrete prescriptions for action from a parsimonious set of premises. Tunnel constructivism differs from generic constructivism in that the tunnel constructivist deliberately ignores the consequences of those prescriptions, including consequences that most people would deem relevant as a matter of common sense. The metaphor of tunnel constructivism is intended to capture both of these characteristics. In a tunnel, there is only one direction you can go, and the tunnel prevents you from seeing anything outside. Tunnel vision is to be expected in a tunnel. Tunnel constructivism is not confined to free speech-libertarian views about property and contract are other examples-but the theory is salient and increasingly influential in the free speech context.

The conjunction of these two properties, deduction and consequence insensitivity, define tunnel constructivism. Deduction is necessary but not sufficient. The theorist must also be disposed to give deduction's consequences overriding weight. A principle can have a deductive provenance without having absolute strength.4

Constructivism in some sense is unavoidable. For example, the deduction of a political prescription from a narrow set of premises is characteristic of all law. More generally, the procedure of inferring a plan of action from a few premises, and of following standardized behavioral protocols, is an inevitable and valuable part of normal human conduct. We could not get through a single hour without routines. But none of this requires blindness to consequences at the architectonic level, in the creation of the routines themselves. It is this blindness that distinguishes tunnel constructivism.5 Blindness to consequences usually reflects nothing more than the limits of human intelligence. In the specific pathology I am describing, the blindness is an effect of the constructivism: one clings to a plan of action in the teeth of manifestly destructive results because one is in the grip of a philosophical construct that tells him that these results don't matter. …

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