The Ethics of Advocacy Blogging

Both Dave Hoffman and Orin Kerr have recently suggested that some of the liberal legal commentators who claimed that the individual mandate was a slam dunk case for the government were doing so for the purposes of “shaping the narrative” about the case, and may not have actually believed what they said. Paul Horwitz of Prawfsblawg suggests that such advocacy blogging (at least by legal academics) is unethical.

In one sense, all blogging that expresses a position on a controversial issue is “shaping the narrative.” Whenever I write a post on a disputed issue, whether it be the individual mandate or the politics of The Hunger Games, part of my purpose is to persuade readers that I’m right and competing views wrong. I don’t think there is anything unethical about engaging in such efforts at persuasion. Indeed, they are part of what makes blogging – including blogging by academic experts – a useful enterprise.

At the same time, Horwitz is right to suggest that it is wrong for an academic to publicly “assert… with confidence a view that one doesn’t really believe, or doesn’t believe with that degree of confidence” for the purpose of influencing public opinion. Doing so attaches the veneer of academic respectability to an opinion that isn’t actually backed by the scholar’s expert judgment.

As I said in my previous post on this subject, I don’t think this is what most of the liberal commentators who claimed that the mandate was an easy case actually did. I believe that they meant what they said and said what they meant.

And, for what it is worth, I myself have never said anything in a VC post that I didn’t actually believe at the time I said it. Can I definitively prove that? Obviously not. I’m the only one who knows what I really think, and even I don’t remember my exact state of mind at the time I wrote every one of the hundreds of blog posts and dozens of op eds I’ve written over the six years I have blogged for the VC.

However, I will note that I have often said things that weren’t helpful to the position I was defending at the time. For example, I would not have initially expressed the view that the individual mandate was covered by Gonzales v. Raich, or later called attention to my change of mind on this point. The former post was written before the mandate litigation began, but at a time when it was becoming clear that lawsuits against the mandate were likely to be filed should it pass. Similarly, I would not have repeatedly predicted that the Supreme Court was more likely to uphold the mandate then strike it down (e.g. – here), or pointed out flaws in some of the lower court decisions striking down the mandate (e.g. – in my analysis of the very first such decision).

The issue on which I have probably had the most involvement in public debate was the controversy over Kelo v. City of New London and its aftermath. In my writings on that subject (most recently here), I pointed out that Kelo was consistent with previous Supreme Court precedent which already allowed the government to condemn property for almost any reason (though I also noted that Kelo could have been decided the other way without completely overruling those earlier precedents). From a “shaping the narrative” point of view, it would have been more effective to portray Kelo as a radical new departure. In my view, however, the case was actually an opportunity for the Court to correct – or at least cut back on – some egregious errors from previous decisions.

I have also foregone making plausible claims that might help my cause, but which I did not believe to be true. For example, some mandate opponents have argued that the federal government’s shift away from its Commerce Clause argument to put greater emphasis on the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Tax Clause was a sign of desperation, or at least declining confidence in the commerce argument. I did not believe there was any proof of this (making every plausible argument for your side is just good lawyering), so I didn’t say it, even though it might have helped “shape the narrative” in our favor.