Speaking of the Government

Colorado Law Talks details methods and impact of government speech

Helen Norton believes speech by the government is fundamentally different from when anyone else speaks. The government has the advantage of both power and information over citizens. Because of that, as Norton detailed in a Colorado Law Talks presentation Wednesday, both citizens and the government should have the ability to recognize all the forms government speech can take and its rippling influence.

“The government is unique among speakers because of its coercive power, because of its considerable resource, because of its often privileged access to key information … and because of its wide variety of expressive roles,” said Norton, a professor at the University of Colorado Law School who also served as a Department of Justice attorney for the Clinton administration. “It speaks not only as sovereign, but also as employer, as educator, as property owner, as commander in chief and in many other roles.”

Norton spoke about the pervasiveness of government speech, its effects and potential for both positive impact and harm, and government speech as a constitutional topic, including when the government can lie to its citizens. She explained speech includes not only what government officials directly say to citizens but other methods such as public service announcements, campaigns, court opinions and even choices about what to name streets and buildings. Norton defined government speech as that from its various bodies and from individuals speaking on behalf of the government but not those individuals speaking outside their official capacities.

She said she believed people should consider the importance of government speech right now because the ways it can express itself have evolved, from President Thomas Jefferson’s written State of the Union addresses to Congress to President Donald Trump’s tweeting, and the impact it has on counter-speech and the rights of citizens evolve along with it.

To read this story and other complete articles featured in the March 5, 2017 print edition of Law Week Colorado, copies are available for purchase online.