Nobody’s Fools: The Rational Audience as First Amendment Ideal

The premise of the First Amendment is that the American people are neither sheep nor fools . . . . Given the premises of democracy, there is no such thing as too much speech.Assumptions about audiences shape the outcomes of First Amend-ment cases. Yet the Supreme Court rarely specifies what its assumptions about audiences are, much less attempts to justify them. Drawing on lit-erary theory, this Article identifies and defends two critical assumptions that emerge from First Amendment cases involving so-called core speech. The first is that audiences are capable of rationally assessing the truth, quality, and credibility of core speech. The second is that more speech is generally preferable to less. These assumptions, which I refer to collec-tively as the rational audience model, lie at the heart of the marketplace of ideas metaphor, which has long been a target of criticism among First Amendment scholars. Now, however, cognitive psychology and behav-ioral economics provide empirical evidence that the assumptions of the rational audience model are demonstrably false in some commonplace settings. This Article nonetheless contends that behavioral economics has not yet made the case for jettisoning the rational audience model in the realm of core speech. As the Supreme Court has recognized, a legal test that looks at the actual effects of speech would be cumbersome and ex-pensive to apply, and would therefore chill speech, but there are even more compelling reasons to adhere to a test focused on the reasonable in-terpretation of core speech. The rational audience model constrains pa-ternalistic speech regulation, thereby safeguarding individual autonomy and the foundations of democratic self-governance. More-over, the ra-tional audience model prevents public discourse from being reduced to the level of the least educated or least sophisticated audience member. The model calls on citizens to raise their cognitive capacities to meet the demands of public discourse, and it serves as a check on the government’s increasingly powerful ability to drown out other speakers in that discourse. This Article concludes that the rational audience model repre-sents a flawed but worthy ideal.

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