Deep dive into free speech rights

Leslie Ridgeway • September 16, 2021
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Professor Erin Miller brings expertise in First Amendment, criminal procedure and legal theory to USC Gould
Prof. Erin Miller brings expertise in First Amendment, criminal procedure and legal theory to USC Gould

Who has the right to free speech? Are there limits on freedom of expression? What is a clear distinction between speech and conduct? How does technology affect freedom of speech? And what does all this mean to an attorney practicing law?

Professor Erin Miller, one of the newest professors to join the Gould School of Law, intends to immerse her students deeply into these issues in the courses she’ll teach, including a seminar on Free Speech Theory this fall. She’ll also teach a doctrinal course in Criminal Procedure in spring 2022.
Miller, a First Amendment theorist, was a Bigelow Teaching Fellow at the University of Chicago School of Law, and she holds a JD from Yale Law School and a PhD in political theory from Princeton. She relies on her background in political theory to help students understand the deeper principles on which the law rests, as well as to critically think about whether those principles are the right ones.
“Legal education is more than passing the bar exam,” she says. “After that you have to go out in the world and practice law, and to do that requires a sensitivity to theory, no matter the field. Students will be better practitioners if they understand the consequences of the law and can think about both what’s working and what’s not.”
For example, in Criminal Procedure, Miller plans a thorough exploration of cases touching on difficult issues from privacy to police brutality to mass incarceration.
“It’s hard to do given time constraints, but I want to cover as much detail from the cases, and as much of their context, as I can so my students understand how high the stakes are in these cases,” she says. And in her free speech seminar this semester, Miller is asking each student to write a final paper designed to clarify their own thoughts on free speech: how should speech be protected under the Constitution?
Amplification of speech emerges as research theme
Miller is also keenly interested in the amplification of speech, which has become a theme in her research over the past few years. Her work tackles related issues such as unequal access to amplification opportunities and the potential conflicts that speech amplified to very large audiences creates between individual speakers’ interests and democracy. She’s also fascinated by the problems presented by social media platforms.
“There are many people talking about how Facebook and Google have too much power, but there is no conceptual framework for understanding what exactly is the problem,” she says. “How much power is too much? How is Facebook different from, say, the New York Times? Is it just a matter of scale, or is there something more at work?”
Miller was drawn to Gould because of the warmth of the community and the interdisciplinary avenues for research.
“All law schools claim they are interdisciplinary, but here, there are really strong law and history, law and philosophy, law and economics contingents. It’s great for students to be able to study law from all these angles.”

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