Property and Speech in Summum

Blocher, Joseph | August 16, 2009

City of Pleasant Grove v. Summum is, by its own reckoning, a case about government speech under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Even so, most commentary has justifiably focused on the decision’s implications for another part of the First Amendment: the Establishment Clause. This brief Article addresses yet another feature of Summum—what itdraws from, and says about, the relationship between speech rights and property ownership. This relationship is not only the driving force behind the majority’s opinion, but is also an important tool for understanding government speech in other cases involving government intrusion into speech markets, which often involve speech that is less physical than the monuments at issue in Summum. Part I of this Article discusses the intersection of property rights and government speech in Summum. Part II explores how that intersection illuminates three often-hidden characteristics of all speech: ownership, rivalry, and excludability. Focusing on these concepts may help explain the property-like characteristics of speech (even when it takes forms less physical than the monuments in Summum), and whether property ownership is itself a communicative act.