As a rule, Roberts usually is protective of the First Amendment. Laws that encroach on free speech—whether the speech in question is a campaign donation or a video of animal cruelty—have fared poorly under Roberts.
Yet there are glaring exceptions, in both directions, that make the chief justice difficult to predict.
Roberts defied many First Amendment experts' expectations in April, when he cast the deciding vote to uphold a Florida law barring judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions. There aren't many restrictions on speech Roberts likes—and campaign-finance law seemed like an especially unlikely place to find one.
That decision was a stark departure from the Court's past campaign-finance cases—the area where Roberts has pressed his First Amendment case most aggressively. Since 2007, there have been five 5-4 rulings striking down campaign-finance laws, including Citizens United. Roberts wrote three of them.
"If the First Amendment protects flag burning, funeral protests and Nazi parades—despite the profound offense such spectacles cause—it surely protects political campaign speech despite popular opposition," he wrote last year in McCutcheon v. FEC.
And indeed, Roberts' most prominent free-speech decisions are hardly limited to campaign-finance law. In 2010, he wrote the Court's 8-1 decision striking down a federal law that banned the sale of animal "crush" videos, rejecting the government's argument that extreme animal cruelty has no value to society and therefore is not entitled to First Amendment protection.
A year later, he sided with the Westboro Baptist Church, the fundamentalist organization known for picketing military funerals with antigay placards and chants.
"Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and—as it did here—inflict great pain," Roberts wrote. "On the facts before us, we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a Nation we have chosen a different course—to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."
Justice Samuel Alito, who joined the Court just a few months after Roberts, was the only dissenting justice in the animal-cruelty and Westboro Baptist cases. Outside the context of campaign-finance reform, Roberts has been surprisingly able to corral unanimity even in polarizing free-speech cases.
Collins pointed to a case last year in which the Court ruled unanimously against Massachusetts' "buffer zones," which outlawed protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics. It was a unanimous decision in an abortion case, and all of the liberal justices simply signed on to Roberts' decision—they didn't even write separate opinions agreeing with the outcome but explaining different rationales.
"I thought this was Roberts at his masterful best. I mean, nobody could have predicted a 9-zip judgment in that case," Collins said.