The Projected Light Message Cases: A Study in the General Erosion of Free Speech Theory

R. George Wright
Lawrence A. Jegen Professor of Law, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Any new practice involving communication can pose a challenge to established free speech law. A few such practices are of exceptional value in promoting a clearer understanding of free speech law and, crucially, of the increasingly important deficiencies of even our best free speech theories. The practice of projecting light messages onto targeted property is just such a practice.

This Article takes note of the phenomenon of projecting messages, through ordinary light, onto backdrops of various kinds, without the consent of any party otherwise associated with the backdrop in question. The message in question can be of any type. The backdrop can be any natural or artificial object, including buildings, homes, or conceivably even one or more human persons.

The Article introduces the practice of projected light messaging by reference to litigated, actual but un-litigated, and hypothetical such cases, and then seeks guiding principles by which such cases, and the basic free speech issues they pose, can be properly adjudicated. These light messaging cases are herein first treated, at the broadest level, as posing issues of the scope and limits of property rights, including a property right to project or else to prohibit the message in question. In such cases, property and tort law bring to bear theories such as nuisance or trespass. The Article considers broad and middle-range theories of the scope and justification of property rights, including theories emphasizing contract, natural right, or natural law; utility or wealth enhancement, or some overall social benefit; and autonomy, freedom, and self-realization. As it turns out, neither our broad nor our middle-range theories of property rights can even approach offering any reasonably determinate general resolution of the projected message cases. [Read entire article here]