Samantha Barbas


This article describes the development of the public forum doctrine in the context of a larger story about the nation’s efforts in this period to come to terms with its first modern crisis of communication...The public forum is both a site for public debate and a means of communication for the less privileged. In the 1930s and 1940s, intellectuals and activists sought to enlist the state in the creation of “public forums” on the radio, in print journalism, and in public space. This article examines this public forum movement and its enduring impact on the free speech doctrine and social thought...This article also illuminates the historical origins of the “market dysfunction” argument that has dominated recent First Amendment debates—that the ideal of democratic self-governance cannot exist alongside “monopoly control of the media, [and] access limitations suffered by disfavored or impoverished groups”and that the state must “counteract the skew of public debate attributable to the market and thus preserve the essential conditions of democracy.”...Part I of this article establishes the background for the movement to create public forums for speech by examining responses to the advent of the mass media in the first decades of the twentieth century...Part II looks at efforts to resolve the contradictions of mass communications through an affirmative theory of freedom of speech, as it came to be articulated in a nationwide effort to turn broadcasting into a public forum...Part III looks at a similar campaign to turn newspapers into public forums through right of access laws and balanced content requirements enforced by the state...Part IV looks at the Court’s acknowledgement of the link between economic and communicative inequalities, and the tension between the ideals of freedom of expression and public discussion, in its development of the public forum doctrine.