Thursday, September 27, 2012
"The Many Paths to Neutrality"
This essay introduces a volume, First Amendment Stories, which the authors edited and to
which a number of distinguished scholars contributed. The authors reflect on the
tendency of First Amendment law to abstract away from specifics, and note that
free-speech and religious-liberty law and doctrines generally aim for a certain
kind of “neutrality”; in the interest of hitting that target, some
considerations that are salient to ordinary common sense are deemed not to
count. But, how is this neutrality possible? How does it ever happen that people
embrace it? What specific contexts lead courts to abstract away from both
specificity and context, to adopt positions that are neutral toward, say,
theological truth and the viewpoint of speech? Is this move – this striving –
toward neutrality justified, or justifiable? This question, the authors believe,
runs through this volume and its chapters.
It turns out that, like “equality,” neutrality has a conventional meaning, one that, in many ways, can
obscure the term’s contested, complicated, and multiple meanings. When it is not
used merely to suggest a kind of serene nonjudgmentalism, the invocation of
neutrality in conversations about law and politics is typically a shorthand
gesture toward the generally understood value of removing some issues from
political consideration, together with the arguments in favor of this removal.
Such linguistic conventions are useful. The vague term “neutrality” may either
introduce substantive argument or serve as a meaningful slogan in the many
contexts in which it is difficult to develop arguments in a careful, systematic
way. “Neutrality,” though, is a fluid term, as this volume’s several stories
illustrate. It must take its shape from its container, the specific arguments in
favor of withdrawing this or that substantive issue from politics.
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