What Can the Government Say?

An area of law and religion that has gotten a bit of attention relatively recently is the so-called “government speech” doctrine, which concerns the fairly liberal (in the non-political sense) rules about what the government may express about religion. So, for example, Summum v. Pleasant Grove City, in which a municipality rejected a privately donated monument by a religious group for display in a public park alongside several other monuments, including a Ten Commandments monument, was decided in favor of the municipality on the basis that the government has considerable latitude in deciding how to speak.

Here is an interesting new book that focuses on the doctrine of government speech in the law and religion context and elsewhere: The Government’s Speech and the Constitution (Cambridge University Press), by Helen Norton.

“When we discuss constitutional law, we usually focus on the constitutional rules that apply to what the government does. Far less clear are the constitutional rules that apply to what the government says. When does the speech of this unusually powerful speaker violate our constitutional rights and liberties? More specifically, when does the government’s expression threaten liberty or equality? And under what circumstances does the Constitution prohibit our government from lying to us? In The Government’s Speech and the Constitution, Professor Helen Norton investigates the variety and abundance of the government’s speech, from early proclamations and simple pamphlets, to the electronic media of radio and television, and ultimately to today’s digital age. This enables us to understand how the government’s speech has changed the world for better and for worse, and why the government’s speech deserves our attention, and at times our concern.”