Working paper

How Do Rights Revolutions Occur? Free Speech and the First Amendment

Daniel L. Chen, and Susan Yeh


Does law shape values? We test a model of law and norms using an area of law where economic incentives are arguably not the prime drivers of social change. From 1958–2008, Democratic judges were more likely than Republicans to favor progressive free speech standards. Using the random assignment of U.S. federal court judges setting geographically-local precedent, we estimate that progressive free speech standards liberalized sexual attitudes and behaviors and increased both crime rates and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We then randomly allocated data entry workers to enter newsarticles of court decisions. Progressive decisions liberalized sexual attitudes and shifted norm perceptions for data entry subjects, but not self-reported behavior. These results present evidence of law’s expressive power – with fundamental implications for decision making in social and political settings and for the empirical predictions of theoretical models in these domains.


Law and norms; expressive law; cultural change;

JEL codes

  • J12: Marriage • Marital Dissolution • Family Structure • Domestic Abuse
  • J16: Economics of Gender • Non-labor Discrimination
  • K42: Illegal Behavior and the Enforcement of Law
  • N32: U.S. • Canada: 1913-
  • N42: U.S. • Canada: 1913–
  • Z1: Cultural Economics • Economic Sociology • Economic Anthropology


Daniel L. Chen, and Susan Yeh, How Do Rights Revolutions Occur? Free Speech and the First Amendment, TSE Working Paper, n. 16-705, September 2016.

See also

Published in

TSE Working Paper, n. 16-705, September 2016