Commentary

Liberals, Conservatives, and Individual Rights

The Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, upholding the Second Amendment right of individuals to own firearms, should finally lay to rest the widespread myth that the defining difference between liberal and conservative justices is that the former support “individual rights” and “civil liberties,” while the latter routinely defer to government assertions of authority. The Heller dissent presents the remarkable spectacle of four liberal Supreme Court justices tying themselves into an intellectual knot to narrow the protections the Bill of Rights provides.

Or perhaps it’s not as remarkable as we’ve been led to think. Consider the Court’s First Amendment decisions. Contrary to popular belief, conservative justices are about as likely to vote in favor of individuals bringing First Amendment challenges to government regulations as are the liberals. Indeed, the justice most likely to vote to uphold a First Amendment claim is the “conservative” Justice Anthony Kennedy. The least likely is the “liberal” Justice Stephen Breyer. Consistent with general conservative/liberal patterns in commercial speech cases, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia have voted to invalidate restrictions on advertising more than 75 percent of the time. Justices Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, meanwhile, have voted to uphold such restrictions in most cases.

Conservative justices also typically vote to limit the government’s ability to regulate election-related speech, while liberal justices are willing to uphold virtually any regulation in the name of “campaign finance reform.” In Davis v. Federal Election Commission, decided the same day as Heller, Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court’s conservatives, reaffirmed the “fundamental nature of the right to spend personal funds for campaign speech.” The dissenters argued that “in the context of elections … limiting the quantity of speech” is perfectly acceptable.

Liberals have also been more willing than conservatives to limit the First Amendment’s protection of “expressive association.” The Court’s conservatives held that forcing the Boy Scouts of America to employ a gay scoutmaster violated the Scouts’ right to promote its belief in traditional sexual morality. The liberal dissenters thought the government should be allowed to force the Scouts to present a message inconsistent with the Scouts’ values.

The Fifth Amendment’s protection of property rights presents, if anything, an even starker example of greater commitment to individual rights by the conservative majority. In the infamous Kelo v. New London, the Court’s liberal justices, joined by Justice Kennedy, held that the government may take an individual’s property and turn it over to a private party for commercial use. The four conservative dissenters argued that such actions violate the Fifth Amendment’s requirement that government takings be for “public use.”

A few years earlier, the Court’s conservative majority held that a government regulation that deprives a land owner of any use of his property amounts to a “taking” that requires compensation. The liberal dissenters would have permitted the government to totally wipe out an individual’s investment without any redress.

And consider the issue of government use of racial classifications. Liberal justices have been willing to uphold virtually any use of race by the government—including quotas in higher education, set-asides for government contracts, and raced-based assignments of students to public schools—so long as the government claims benign motives. The conservatives, by contrast, argue that the government must treat people as individuals, not as members of a racial caste.

Other examples could be raised. The conservatives, for example, have been more sympathetic to free exercise of religion claims than the liberals, and more inclined to forbid government regulation of “hate speech.”

The point should be clear. There are many ideological differences between the conservative and liberal justices on the Supreme Court. But a consistent, stronger liberal devotion to supporting individual rights and civil liberties against assertions of government power isn’t one of them.

David E. Bernstein is a professor at the George Mason University School of Law, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and the author of You Can’t Say That!