Intermediate Scrutiny as a Policymaker’s Touchstone

As I go on (and on, and on) about, speech regulation must meet a higher bar than ordinary regulation. Outside of a handful of relatively-narrow categories, content-based speech regulation must survive “strict scrutiny.” That’s the most exacting standard; most such regulation can’t get there, and is thus struck down when challenged in court.

Some content-based speech regulation – like commercial speech, and maybe professional speech – is subject to the lesser “intermediate scrutiny” standard.¬† Content-neutral regulation of speech (the familiar “time, place, and manner” restrictions on speech) is also subject to intermediate scrutiny. Regulation that does not impact speech? Unless another limiting principle applies (e.g., other constitutional rights; antitrust law), such regulation is subject to “rational basis” review – which means it’s going to be upheld by a court so as the regulation passed the laugh test.

While it’s understandable that courts would show deference to legislative and executive bodies in this way, policymakers shouldn’t hesitate to hold themselves to a higher standard. And the intermediate scrutiny standard, even if not legal binding on their actions, is an excellent way to discipline the policymaking process.

But before I get to that, it’s helpful to think of the ways that policymaking can fail. These fall into three broad categories:

  1. Regulating Things that Aren’t Actually Problems.

Making rules is expensive and time-consuming. Every new rule adds to the cognitive burden to those expected to comply with – and enforce – that rule. So it seems fair to expect that any proposed rule be designed to address a real problem. 1

Example: Voter ID requirements

Bad Argument for the Rule: “What’s the big deal? It’s easy to comply.”

2. Collateral Damage

Many rules are well-intentioned, but end up creating so many ancillary problems that their cost – often unanticipated – greatly exceeds their benefit.

Example: HIPAA.

Bad Argument for the Rule: “We’re not worried about those other things – THIS thing is the only thing that’s important.”

3. Ineffectiveness

Some rules are all sound and fury, signifying nothing. They make claims of solving a problem, but don’t advance the cause. Often come in an emotional wrapper.

Examples: Assault weapon bans.

Bad Argument for the Rule: “Think of the children.”

And, of course, many rules display characteristics of two or even all three of these markers of policy failure.

So how can the intermediate scrutiny standard help? Easy – it provides a disciplined mental framework for evaluating the effectiveness of policy. The standard requires that rules:

  • address substantial government interests;
  • directly advance those interests; and
  • do so in a reasonably narrow fashion.

That’s actually a great way of thinking about ALL policy. Because assuming we want effective policies, and aren’t just proposing rules for short-term political gain, tribal belief, or sheer contrariness, 2 we should rightly reject rules if they can’t meet this test.

Substantial government interest? That’s asking the question of whether a rule is actually addressing a real concern. Is there a serious enough problem that we need a rule, and all of the attendant costs and implications of government power that come with it? 3

Directly advancing the interest? That’s getting to whether the proposed rule actually has a chance of working. Does it actually dig away at the problem, or is it just window dressing?

Is it narrowly applied? That’s focused on collateral damage. Does our proposed rule create all sorts of other costs and externalities, quite apart from the issue the rule is trying to address?

Of course, this isn’t always easy. It may be hard to tell whether a potential rule will actually work. Ancillary consequences may not be seen until a Rule is already in place. And motivated reasoning can see advocates of a rule ignore all evidence and argument against their baby.

But assuming we want to enact rules that actually work? There’s a lot to be said for using the intermediate scrutiny standard as our analytical framework whenever evaluating policy.

Notes:

  1. If the objection is that this formulation stacks the deck against rules, well, yes. Rules should have the burden of justifying their own existence. And in close cases, the rule should lose in favor of greater freedom.
  2. A big assumption, I know.
  3. This is particularly key when dealing with Rules that carry criminal sanctions. Given the realities of how enforcement of such Rules works, some have re-styled the “substantial” element of this prong as “don’t support any criminal laws that you aren’t willing to kill to enforce.”

Leave a Reply