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We are still searching for an adequate theory of the first amendment freedom of speech. Despite a plethora of judicial opinions and scholarly articles, there are fundamental conflicts over the meaning of the words "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech." This Article examines the possibility that recent developments in social theory can aid our understanding of the freedom of speech. My thesis is that Jiirgen Habermas' theory of communicative action can serve as the basis for an interpretation of the first amendment that fits the general contours of existing first amendment doctrine and provides a coherent justification for the freedom of speech.

Habermas' theory takes as its point of departure the speech act theory developed through contemporary analytic philosophy and linguistics. The central theme of speech act theory is that speech is action; communication coordinates individual behavior through achieving rational understanding. An important corollary is the proposition that communication is intersubjective; speech acts involve both speakers and listeners. In addition, the theory of communicative action makes a distinction between communicative action-oriented to the coordination of behavior through rational agreement-and strategic behavior-the use of speech to manipulate, coerce, or deceive. I argue that a theory of free speech can incorporate this distinction to mark the boundaries of the right to free speech: freedom of speech is freedom to engage in communicative action, not strategic action. Another component of Habermas' theory is the ideal speech situation, in which rational agreement may be reached because distorting factors are excluded; this ideal situation serves as the basis of a principle of equality of communicative opportunity that can give the freedom of speech its fundamental content. Habermas' theory of communicative action provides the basis for my reinterpretation of the first amendment freedom of speech as the freedom of communicative action.

This Article has two aims. My first aim is to develop a theory of the meaning of the first amendment from the theory of communicative action. In pursuit of this first goal, the Article assumes a perspective that is internal to the practice of American constitutional law. I argue that Habermas' theory has substantial power to explain and justify first amendment doctrine. Indeed, it is my view that a theory of freedom of speech based on the theory of communicative action, more so than any other theory, provides the best justification for the first amendment while simultaneously providing the best fit with the existing case law.

In addition to the development of a theory of the first amendment, this Article has a second aim: From the point of view of the practice of social theory, the current Article is a "thought experiment" designed to test and elaborate Habermas' theory of communicative action. I explore various objections to and ambiguities in the theory of communicative action by taking up the attitude of a participant in the practice of legal interpretation who adopts the theory of communicative action as a practical principle for institutionalization of discourse in the public sphere. It is my hope that this thought experiment will have value in the enterprise of understanding, clarifying, and extending the theory of communicative action. For example, this Article responds to the suggestion that the theory of communicative action should be reformulated as a theory of institutionalized discourse "in the public sphere of a participatory democracy."

Part II of this Article begins with a hermeneutic approach to the problem of interpreting the first amendment. Part III explores and criticizes existing theories of the freedom of expression. The theory of communicative action is explicated in Part IV; the implications of that theory for the freedom of speech are explored in Part V. Finally, Part VI applies the results to specific problems in first amendment doctrine, and Part VII draws some conclusions about the implications of this exercise for both first amendment doctrine and the theory of communicative action.

Publication Citation

83 Nw. U. L. Rev. 54 (1988-1989)