Justice Thomas's Myopic View of the Internet

Timed to coincide with the release of Justice Clarence Thomas’s autobiography, the First Amendment Center today published an online symposium concerning Justice Thomas’s First Amendment jurisprudence. Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke Law School, Geoffrey Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, and Supreme Court practitioner Tom Goldstein are among the scholars and practitioners who scrutinized Justice Thomas’s thoughts on a variety of free speech issues, from commercial speech to campaign finance.

One scholar, Mary-Rose Papandrea, who teaches constitutional law at Boston College Law School and is an occasional contributor to this blog, examined Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence concerning the electronic media. Mary-Rose concludes that Thomas is rigidly committed to applying established First Amendment doctrine to electronic media regardless of the technological and economic complications. She points out that in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564 (2002), Justice Thomas rejected arguments that the Child Online Protection Act was unconstitutionally overbroad because it applied community standards to determine what sexual expression was harmful to minors.

The challengers in that case had argued that applying such a standard would give the most puritanical community in the United States a heckler’s veto over sexual expression on the Internet nationally because the Internet did not permit geographic targeting. Remarkably, Justice Thomas responded that that those who were worried about this problem should simply stop using the Internet and instead use an expressive medium that permitted targeting.

This myopic view is consistent with Justice Thomas’s approach in other electronic media cases where he has insisted upon applying traditional First Amendment doctrine even when technological differences would seem to warrant otherwise. See, e.g., Denver Area Educ. Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. v. FCC, 518 U.S. 727 (1996) and United States v. Playboy Entertainment Group, Inc., 529 U.S. 803 (2000).

You can read all of the essays in the symposium on the First Amendment Center's website.

(Note: Mary-Rose Papandrea is my wife.)


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