|The Future of Free Speech 3|
General Interest Intermediaries
Of course there is a limit to how much can be done on streets and in parks. Even in the largest cities, streets and parks are insistently local. But many of the social functions of streets and parks, as public forums, are performed by other institutions too. In fact society’s general interest intermediaries — newspapers, magazines, television broadcasters — can be understood as public forums of an especially important sort.
The reasons are straightforward. When you read a city newspaper or a national magazine, your eyes will come across a number of articles that you might not have selected in advance, and if you are like most people, you will read some of those articles. Perhaps you did not know that you might have an interest in minimum wage legislation, or Somalia, or the latest developments in the Middle East; but a story might catch your attention. What is true for topics is also true for points of view. You might think that you have nothing to learn from someone whose view you abhor; but once you come across the editorial pages, you might well read what they have to say, and you might well benefit from the experience. Perhaps you will be persuaded on one point or another. At the same time, the front page headline, or the cover story in Newsweek, is likely to have a high degree of salience for a wide range of people.
Television broadcasters have similar functions, the most important of which may be what has become an international institution: the evening news. If you tune into the evening news, you will learn about a number of topics that you would not have chosen in advance. Because of its speech and immediacy, television broadcasters perform this public forum-type function still more than general interest intermediaries in the print media. The “lead story” on the networks is likely to have a great deal of public saliency, helping to define central issues, and creating a kind of shared focus of attention, for many millions of people. And what happens after the lead story — dealing with a menu of topics both domestically and internationally — creates something like a speakers’ corner beyond anything imagined in Hyde Park.
None of these claims depends on a judgement that general interest intermediaries always do an excellent job, or even a good job. What matters for present purposes is that they expose people to a wide range of topics and views at the same time that they provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public. Indeed, general interest intermediaries of this sort have large advantages over streets and parks precisely because most of these tend to be so much less local and so much more national, even international. Typically, they expose people to questions and problems in other areas, even other nations. They even provide a kind of back-door cosmopolitanism, ensuring that many people will learn something about diverse areas of the world, regardless of whether they are much interested in doing so.
Of course general interest intermediaries are not public forums in the technical sense. Most important, members of the public do not have a legal right of access to them. These are emphatically not institutions with respect to which individual citizens are allowed to override the editorial and economic judgements and choices of private owners. A sharp constitutional debate on precisely this issue has resulted in a resounding defeat for those who claimed a constitutionally guaranteed access right. But the question of legal compulsion is really incidental. The general interest intermediaries, even without legal compulsion, promote many of the functions of public forums. They promote shared experiences; they expose people to information and views that would not have been selected in advance.
Cass Sunstein is Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor of Jurisprudence, University of Chicago. This article borrows from his forthcoming book Republic.com, to be published by Princeton University Press