Archaeology of Legal Definitions of Speech

The Archaeology of Legal Definitions of Speech uses natural language processing to chart changes in the legal definition of speech and to place this language in its cultural and technological contexts. Drawing on a large corpus of Supreme Court decisions dealing with the First Amendment, the Archaeology identifies the terminology associated with speech in different historical periods, highlighting discontinuities in the way the law defines and delimits speech and drawing attention to the specific meanings of the concept in the past. It also seeks to place these different meanings in a particular context of change both in the material means of communication and in the cultural meaning attributed to communication. The project will chart a techno-cultural history of speech law (as opposed to the more common socio-political history) and, in doing so, suggest that the expansion of one of the rights closest to American conceptions of individualism and freedom has been driven in part by machines.

The range of activities covered by the free speech clause of the First Amendment has expanded greatly in the 20th century. While common sense once dictated that "speech" referred to written and oral communication, by the beginning of the 21st century this had changed dramatically. Activities such as picketing, displaying symbols, gestures, wearing armbands, and even nude dancing may now considered to be speech, or speech-like, greatly extending the realm of activities that have some level of First Amendment protection. This expansion has had many implications for the rights accorded to individuals and, now, corporate entities. Much of this expansion would not have been possible without underlying changes in the very conception of communication, or speech.

Jennifer Petersen Associate Professor of Media Studies