Constitutional Dynamism: Responding to Tim Wu on “Machine Speech”, “Opportunism”, and First Amendment

Ben Sperry —  2 September 2013

William Buckley once described a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Ironically, this definition applies to Professor Tim Wu’s stance against the Supreme Court applying the Constitution’s protections to the information age.

Wu admits he is going against the grain by fighting what he describes as leading liberals from the civil rights era, conservatives and economic libertarians bent on deregulation, and corporations practicing “First Amendment opportunism.” Wu wants to reorient our thinking on the First Amendment, limiting its domain to what he believes are its rightful boundaries.

But in his relatively recent piece in The New Republic and journal article in U Penn Law Review, Wu bites off more than he can chew. First, Wu does not recognize that the First Amendment is used “opportunistically” only because the New Deal revolution and subsequent jurisprudence has foreclosed all other Constitutional avenues to challenge economic regulations. Second, his positive formulation for differentiating protected speech from non-speech will lead to results counter to his stated preferences. Third, contra both conservatives like Bork and liberals like Wu, the Constitution’s protections can and should be adapted to new technologies, consistent with the original meaning.

Wu’s Irrational Lochner-Baiting

Wu makes the case that the First Amendment has been interpreted to protect things that aren’t really within the First Amendment’s purview. He starts his New Republic essay with Sorrell v. IMS (cf. TechFreedom’s Amicus Brief), describing the data mining process as something undeserving of any judicial protection. He deems the application of the First Amendment to economic regulation a revival of Lochner, evincing a misunderstanding of the case that appeals to undefended academic prejudice and popular ignorance. This is important because the economic liberty which was long protected by the Constitution, either as matter of federalism or substantive rights, no longer has any protection from government power aside from the First Amendment jurisprudence Wu decries.

Lochner v. New York is a 1905 Supreme Court case that has received more scorn, left and right, than just about any case that isn’t dealing with slavery or segregation. This has led to the phenomenon (my former Constitutional Law) Professor David Bernstein calls “Lochner-baiting,” where a commentator describes any Supreme Court decision with which he or she disagrees as Lochnerism. Wu does this throughout his New Republic piece, somehow seeing parallels between application of the First Amendment to the Internet and a Liberty of Contract case under substantive Due Process.

The idea that economic regulation should receive little judicial scrutiny is not new. In fact, it has been the operating law since at least the famous Carolene Products footnote four. However, the idea that only insular and discrete minorities should receive First Amendment protection is a novel application of law. Wu implicitly argues exactly this when he says “corporations are not the Jehovah’s Witnesses, unpopular outsiders needing a safeguard that legislators and law enforcement could not be moved to provide.” On the contrary, the application of First Amendment protections to Jehovah’s Witnesses and student protesters is part and parcel of the application of the First Amendment to advertising and data that drives the Internet. Just because Wu does not believe businesspersons need the Constitution’s protections does not mean they do not apply.

Finally, while Wu may be correct that the First Amendment should not apply to everything for which it is being asserted today, he does not seem to recognize why there is “First Amendment opportunism.” In theory, those trying to limit the power of government over economic regulation could use any number of provisions in the text of the Constitution: enumerated powers of Congress and the Tenth Amendment, the Ninth Amendment, the Contracts Clause, the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments, the Equal Protection Clause, etc. For much of the Constitution’s history, the combination of these clauses generally restricted the growth of government over economic affairs. Lochner was just one example of courts generally putting the burden on governments to show the restrictions placed upon economic liberty are outweighed by public interest considerations.

The Lochner court actually protected a small bakery run by immigrants from special interest legislation aimed at putting them out of business on behalf of bigger, established competitors. Shifting this burden away from government and towards the individual is not clearly the good thing Wu assumes. Applying the same Liberty of Contract doctrine, the Supreme Court struck down legislation enforcing housing segregation in Buchanan v. Warley and legislation outlawing the teaching of the German language in Meyer v. Nebraska. After the New Deal revolution, courts chose to apply only rational basis review to economic regulation, and would need to find a new way to protect fundamental rights that were once classified as economic in nature. The burden shifted to individuals to prove an economic regulation is not loosely related to any conceivable legitimate governmental purpose.

Now, the only Constitutional avenue left for a winnable challenge of economic regulation is the First Amendment. Under the rational basis test, the Tenth Circuit in Powers v. Harris actually found that protecting businesses from competition is a legitimate state interest. This is why the cat owner Wu references in his essay and describes in more detail in his law review article brought a First Amendment claim against a regime requiring licensing of his talking cat show: there is basically no other Constitutional protection against burdensome economic regulation.

The More You Edit, the More Your <sic> Protected?

In his law review piece, Machine Speech, Wu explains that the First Amendment has a functionality requirement. He points out that the First Amendment has never been interpreted to mean, and should not mean, that all communication is protected. Wu believes the dividing lines between protected and unprotected speech should be whether the communicator is a person attempting to communicate a specific message in a non-mechanical way to another, and whether the communication at issue is more speech than conduct. The first test excludes carriers and conduits that handle or process information but have an ultimately functional relationship with it–like Federal Express or a telephone company. The second excludes tools, those works that are purely functional like navigational charts, court filings, or contracts.

Of course, Wu admits the actual application of his test online can be difficult. In his law review article he deals with some easy cases, like the obvious application of the First Amendment to blog posts, tweets, and video games, and non-application to Google Maps. Of course, harder cases are the main target of his article: search engines, automated concierges, and other algorithm-based services. At the very end of his law review article, Wu finally states how to differentiate between protected speech and non-speech in such cases:

The rule of thumb is this: the more the concierge merely tells the user about himself, the more like a tool and less like protected speech the program is. The more the programmer puts in place his opinion, and tries to influence the user, the more likely there will be First Amendment coverage. These are the kinds of considerations that ultimately should drive every algorithmic output case that courts could encounter.

Unfortunately for Wu, this test would lead to results counterproductive to his goals.

Applying this rationale to Google, for instance, would lead to the perverse conclusion that the more the allegations against the company about tinkering with its algorithm to disadvantage competitors are true, the more likely Google would receive First Amendment protection. And if Net Neutrality advocates are right that ISPs are restricting consumer access to content, then the analogy to the newspaper in Tornillo becomes a good one–ISPs have a right to exercise editorial discretion and mandating speech would be unconstitutional. The application of Wu’s test to search engines and ISPs effectively puts them in a “use it or lose it” position with their First Amendment rights that courts have rejected. The idea that antitrust and FCC regulations can apply without First Amendment scrutiny only if search engines and ISPs are not doing anything requiring antitrust or FCC scrutiny is counterproductive to sound public policy–and presumably, the regulatory goals Wu holds.

First Amendment Dynamism

The application of the First Amendment to the Internet Age does not involve large leaps of logic from current jurisprudence. As Stuart Minor Benjamin shows in his article in the same issue of the U Penn Law Review, the bigger leap would be to follow Wu’s recommendations. We do not need a 21st Century First Amendment that some on the left have called for—the original one will do just fine.

This is because the Constitution’s protections can be dynamically applied, consistent with original meaning. Wu’s complaint is that he does not like how the First Amendment has evolved. Even his points that have merit, though, seem to indicate a stasis mentality. In her book, The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel described this mentality as a preference for a “controlled, uniform society that changes only with permission from some central authority.” But the First Amendment’s text is not a grant of power to the central authority to control or permit anything. It actually restricts government from intervening into the open-ended society where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways.

The application of current First Amendment jurisprudence to search engines, ISPs, and data mining will not necessarily create a world where machines have rights. Wu is right that the line must be drawn somewhere, but his technocratic attempt to empower government officials to control innovation is short-sighted. Ultimately, the First Amendment is as much about protecting the individuals who innovate and create online as those in the offline world. Such protection embraces the future instead of fearing it.

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