This Article traces two interwoven jurisprudential genealogies. The first of these focuses on the emergence of neutrality in speech and press doctrine. Content and viewpoint neutrality are now the bedrock principles of modern First Amendment law. Yet the history of these concepts is largely untold and otherwise misunderstood. Scholars usually assume that expressive-freedom doctrine was mostly undeveloped before the early twentieth century and that neutrality was central to its modern rebirth. But this view distorts and sometimes even inverts historical perspectives. For most of American history, the governing paradigm of expressive freedom was one of limited toleration, focused on protecting speech within socially defined boundaries. The modern embrace of content and viewpoint neutrality, it turns out, occurred only in the 1960s as the Supreme Court merged earlier strands of rights jurisprudence in novel ways. The emergence of neutrality, this Article shows, was more gradual, more contested, and more contingent than we now assume. Recovering this history reveals the novelty of the modern neutrality paradigm and casts new light on the history of other First Amendment concepts, like prior restraints, low-value speech, and overbreadth.

To understand these developments, it is necessary to trace a second doctrinal genealogy that focuses on the concept of fundamental rights. Older views of expressive freedom were embedded in a different conceptual framework for thinking about rights. And once again, the role of neutrality within this tradition was radically different. Today, neutrality is ubiquitous in rights discourse, reflecting the prevailing view that rights are domains in which people can make their own moral choices. Thus defined, rights need not be absolute, but the government must at least maintain neutrality with respect to values. As this Article reveals, however, this neutrality-based view of rights emerged well into the twentieth century, reflecting a transmogrified synthesis of earlier ideas.

Recovering these older paradigms powerfully illustrates how deeply our current perspectives shape the way that we view the Constitution. Principles that appear to be inherent to the very idea of expressive freedom or the very idea of rights, it turns out, are refracted through a modern lens. Integrating history into rights jurisprudence thus poses a substantial and unresolved challenge, warranting further engagement by scholars and judges. On its own, history cannot dictate whether our approach to rights needs adjustment. But it can refocus attention on values and choices that modern doctrine too often ignores.

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