Sex, Lies, and Videogames:

Over the summer, I wrote a piece about the Supreme Court’s decision in the “violent videogames” case (Brown vs Entertainment Merchants Assn) for the forthcoming Cato 2011 Supreme Court Review. The Center for Constitutional Studies at Cato is having a kickoff event for the publication this coming Thursday (starting at 1030 AM), and I’ll be speaking there on the first panel about the Court’s evolving First Amendment jurisprudence.

VC’ers might be particularly interested in (though doubtlessly some will be angered or annoyed by) what I had to say about Justice Thomas’ thoroughly remarkable — though not in a good way — dissenting opinion in the case, one that, in my opinion at least, exposes the underlying flaws of the strict “originalist” position in constitutional law better than any other text:

Justice Thomas’ dissenting opinion expresses the hard-headed and uncompromising originalism for which he is well known:

When interpreting a constitutional provision, “the goal is to discern the most likely public understanding of [that] provision at the time it was adopted.” McDonald v. Chicago, 561 U. S. ___, ___ (2010) (slip op., at 25) (Thomas, J., concurring in part and concurring in judgment). Because the Constitution is a written instrument, “its meaning does not alter.” McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm’n, 514 U. S. 334, 359 (1995) (Thomas, J., concurring in judgment) (internal quotation marks omitted). “That which it meant when adopted, it means now.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). . . .

As originally understood, the First Amendment’s protection against laws “abridging the freedom of speech” did not extend to all speech. . . . In my view, the “practices and beliefs held by the Founders” reveal another category of excluded speech: speech to minor children bypassing their parents. The historical evidence shows that the founding generation believed parents had absolute authority over their minor children and expected parents to use that authority to direct the proper development of their children. It would be absurd to suggest that such a society understood “the freedom of speech” to include a right to speak to minors (or a corresponding right of minors to access speech) without going through the minors’ parents. . . . The founding generation would not have considered it an abridgment of “the freedom of speech” to support parental authority by restricting speech that bypasses minors’ parents.

In support of this latter proposition—which, more or less, ends the constitutional inquiry for Justice Thomas—he relies, inter alia, on Wadsworth’s “The Well-Ordered Family” of 1712, Cotton Mather’s “A Family Well-Ordered” (1699), “The History of Genesis” (1708), Locke’s “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” (1692), Burgh’s “Thoughts on Education” (1749), along with a number of more recent scholarly studies focused on child-rearing practices during the Founding period.

That is originalism on steroids, and, to my eye, rather poignantly illustrates the weakness of the approach. I understand, and am sympathetic to, the notion that the meaning of a constitutional provision should be informed by the meaning given to it by those who drafted and ratified it. But can that really mean that we will look to the child-rearing principles of Cotton Mather and John Locke to define, for all time, the scope of the constitutional protection for free speech? Even assuming that Justice Thomas (or anyone else) can reconstruct the sociology of the eighteenth century to definitively support the notion that parents possessed “absolute authority” over their children, and that “total parental control over children’s lives” was the governing societal norm—what then? The question in this case is not “do parents have absolute authority over their children?” The question in the case is, rather, “how does what the state did here relate to (a) the authority of parents over their children, (b) the power of the state to protect the well-being of children, and (c) the constitutional protection for ‘the freedom of speech’?” That’s a hard question in 2011, and it would have been a hard question in 1791, because it involves categorization: Is this, actually, a case about the authority of parents over their children? Or is it a case about the extent of the state’s power to protect minors? The scope of the First Amendment rights of video game manufacturers? Or the scope of the First Amendment rights of minors? Nothing in Justice Thomas’s historical research tells me, or can possibly tell me, how people in the eighteenth century would have answered those questions. Let me put it this way: I know enough about discourse in the late eighteenth century to know that if you had walked into a bar in, say, Richmond, or Boston, or Philadelphia, in 1791 and made any of the following statements, you would have gotten a nice little argument going:

• “The government has just decreed that children can’t attend religious services. Can it do that?”
• “The government has just decreed that all schoolbooks must include endorsements of John Adams’s candidacy for the Presidency, and a defense of the Alien and Sedition Act. Can it do that?”
• “The government has just decreed that adults may not sing to children who are not their own. Can it do that?”

Justice Thomas believes that all of those questions can be answered in the affirmative—and,more importantly, that “eighteenth century society” would have answered all of those questions in the affirmative. (Indeed, he believes the former precisely because he believes the latter). His belief is misplaced, in my opinion. No amount of historical research can tell us what “the answer” to any of those questions would have been—in 1791, 1891, or 1991—because there is no “answer” that “society” can give to those questions. They’re contested and contestable propositions, depending on (among other things) how you characterize what the government was doing: helping parents or usurping their role, for example. . . .

In any event, if you feel like dropping in on the Cato event (perhaps to defend Thomas’ position!), you’re of course invited to do so.

[UPDATE: Chris Lund points out that Thomas’ originalism is not always so crude as he expresses it here. In Citizens United, he joined Scalia’s concurrence, which contained this paragraph:

The Framers didn’t like corporations, the dissent concludes, and therefore it follows (as night the day) that corporations had no rights of free speech. Of course the Framers’ personal affection or disaffection for corporations is relevant only insofar as it can be thought to be reflected in the understood meaning of the text they enacted-not, as the dissent suggests, as a freestanding substitute for that text . . . The Amendment is written in terms of “speech,” not speakers. Its text offers no foothold for excluding any category of speaker, from single individuals to partnerships of individuals, to unincorporated associations of individuals, to incorporated associations of individuals-and the dissent offers no evidence about the original meaning of the text to support any such exclusion.

A good deal more sensible than the position Thomas takes in Brown]