A Conflict of Visions: How the “21st Century First Amendment” Violates the Constitution’s First Amendment


Is net neutrality necessary to protect First Amendment values in the 21st Century? Or does the First Amendment actually prevent net neutrality regulation?  How can both of these questions be considered simultaneously?

At issue is a conflict of visions about the nature of the liberty protected by the First Amendment. Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously described two clashing concepts of liberty — negative and positive. Simply, negative liberty is freedom from external interference. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is freedom to do something, including having the power and resources necessary to do it.

For example, negative liberty means that no one may rightfully take my property away from me without my consent. Positive liberty means that I have a right to health care that must be provided for me if I cannot afford it on my own.

Positive rights necessarily involve at least some subjugation of the rights of others. A right to health care, for instance, would violate the rights of those who must provide or subsidize health care services without their consent. Further, it would infringe upon others’ positive rights insofar as there are scarce resources available to pay for all such rights.

Conversely, negative rights are compossible with one another, which means all people could hold them simultaneously. These rights apply only against aggressors—e.g., rapists, murderers, and thieves—and not against those who are respecting the rights of others.

In this article, we examine the debate over the First Amendment merits of the Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) “Open Internet” Order issued in March 2015.