Government Speech and Online Forums: First Amendment Limitations on Moderating Public Discourse on Government Websites
David S. Ardia, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Brigham Young University Law Review, Forthcoming
Over the past decade, governments at all levels have moved with alacrity to engage with their citizens online, launching thousands of government websites, including blogs, discussion boards, and other online platforms that solicit public participation. When government engages with the public online, however, it raises difficult questions about the limits of the government’s ability to control its own message, to subsidize the speech of others, and to restrict private parties from speaking.
Courts typically apply the First Amendment’s public forum doctrine to answer these questions, but that doctrine is ill-suited to deal with online forums because it has not kept pace with the changes in public discourse in our increasingly networked world. To overcome the public forum doctrine’s shortcomings, courts are looking to the recently minted government speech doctrine to deal with conflicts over speech on government websites. Unlike the public forum doctrine, which is premised on the idea that all citizens have an equal right to speak in the public forum and a right to equal treatment from the government, the government speech doctrine is based on the assumption that government not only can, but must, privilege some viewpoints over others.
The government speech doctrine, however, suffers from a disturbing circularity. The Supreme Court’s current test, which turns on whether the government “effectively controlled” the message being conveyed, simply requires that the government be effective in doing the very things that are the subject of a plaintiff’s First Amendment challenge. Indeed, the more aggressive the government is in controlling speech, the greater will be its entitlement to claim special treatment under the government speech doctrine.
Echoing Justice Souter’s concurrence in Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, I argue that the government speech doctrine should be grounded in meaningful governmental accountability. That is to say, the doctrine should ensure that recipients of government speech have enough information about the government’s expressive activities that they will be capable of holding the government accountable when it overreaches. Fortunately, the government already has access to the tools it needs to be transparent about its expressive activities online. The real question is whether the government has the will to do so and whether the law provides sufficient incentives when that will is lacking.