Hugo L. Black Lecture on Freedom of Expression

The Constitution, Democracy and Economic Inequality:
Why has democracy failed to check economic inequality in the United States? 

Professor Bertrall Ross, U.C. Berkeley Law

Wednesday, March 31, 2021. 

This annual lecture is designed to bring to the Wesleyan Campus, public figures and scholars with experience and expertise in matters related to the First Amendment and freedom of expression. This lecture is endowed by Leonard S. Halpert ’44 (1922–2017), who believed that the First Amendment to the US Constitution is the basis upon which we enjoy all other Civil Rights. This lecture is named in honor of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black. 

About the Lecture

Prior to the pandemic, the United States had reached a point of economic inequality that had not been seen since the 1920s.  Those levels of inequality are likely to worsen as the American economy recovers, with broader consequences for political stability and economic growth.  According to a leading social science theorem, democracy is supposed to act as a check on growing economic inequality.  The intuition behind this theorem is simple: If a majority of the population sees their incomes stagnate while the wealthy minority gets richer, the majority will demand redistributive policies, and representatives will respond by addressing inequality.  However, very little redistribution has accompanied rising economic inequality in the United States. 

In this talk, Professor Ross addresses the question: Why has democracy failed to mitigate economic inequality in the United States?  His lecture begins by identifying the decision of the framers of the U.S. Constitution intentionally to politically disempower the Poor. He then addresses the constitutional limits that the Supreme Court has placed on redressing economic inequality in its Equal Protection and First Amendment jurisprudence. In light of this legal background, he argues that reducing the income class imbalance of the electorate – i.e. the tendency of wealthier voters to vote at higher rates than less affluent ones – is one of the last constitutionally viable and effective means of ameliorating political inequality.  He will show how political campaigns and changes to their mobilization strategies will be key to inducing greater participation among the poor.  The lecture concludes by proposing three legal strategies aimed at incentivizing such campaigns to mobilize the Poor.

Bertrall Ross Bio

Bertrall Ross is the Chancellor’s Professor of Law at U.C. Berkeley School of Law. His research is driven by a concern about democratic responsiveness and accountability, as well as the inclusion of marginalized communities in the political process. Ross’s past scholarship in the areas of election law, constitutional law, and statutory interpretation has been published in the Columbia Law Review, NYU Law Review, and the University of Chicago Law Review, among others. He is currently working on articles related to separation of powers, partisan gerrymandering, and voter data and inequality and book projects on political inequality and the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment’s prohibition on discriminatory vote denial. Ross earned his J.D. from Yale Law School and Masters degrees from the London School of Economics and Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Prior to joining Berkeley Law, he was a Kellis Parker Academic Fellow at Columbia Law School.  


Hugo L. Black Lecturers 1991 - 2021

Bertrall Ross
Chancellor's Professor of Law
U.C. Berkeley Law

Jelani Cobb
IRA A. Lipman Professor of Journalism
Columbia University

A. Leon Higginbotham Jr.
Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals  for
the Third Circuit, Philadelphia

Rodney Smolla
University of Richmond Law School

Harry A. Blackmun
Supreme Court of the United States

Margaret Marshall
Chief Justice
Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts

Anthony Lewis
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist,
The New York Times

Cass Sunstein
School of Law
University of Chicago

Nadine Strossen
American Civil Liberties Union

Patricia Williams
Professor of Law
Columbia University

Abner Mikva
Former Chief Judge, U.S. Court of
Appeals for the District of Columbia

Laurence H. Tribe
Carl M. Loeb University Professor,
Harvard University

Norman Dorsen
Stokes Professor of Law,
NYU School of Law

Lawrence Lessig

Director, Edmond J. Safra Foundation
Center for Ethic
Professor, Harvard Law School

Patricia Wald
Circuit Judge, U.S. Court of Appeals for
the District of Columbia

Jack M. Balkin
Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the
First Amendment
Yale Law School

Floyd Abrahms
William J. Brennan Visiting Professor of
First Amendment Law, Columbia University

Antonin Scalia
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States

Kathleen Sullivan
Stanford Law School

Geoffrey R. Stone
Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor
University of Chicago Law School

Nat Hentoff
Award-winning author and journalist

Aharon Barak
President of the Israeli Supreme Court (Ret.),
IDC Herzliya

Lee C. Bollinger
Columbia University

Robert Post

Sol and Lillian Goldman Professor of Law
Dean, Yale Law School

Anthony D. Romero
Executive Director
American Civil Liberties Union


Stanley Fish

The Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University
Professor and Professor of Law
Florida International University


Linda Greenhouse
Knight Distinguished Journalist in Residence
Joseph M. Goldstein Lecturer in Law
Yale Law School


John Finn
Professor Emeritus
Wesleyan University