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Abstract

The military’s defunct Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy has been studied and debated for decades. Surprisingly, the question of why a legal regime would combine these particular rules for information flow has received little attention. More surprisingly still, legal scholars have provided no systemic account of why law might prohibit or mandate asking and telling. While there is a large literature on disclosure and a fragmented literature on questioning, considering either part of the information dissemination puzzle in isolation has caused scholars to overlook key considerations. This Article tackles foundational questions of information policy and legal design, focusing on instances in which asking and telling are either mandated or prohibited by legal rules, legal incentives, or social norms.

Although permissive norms for asking and telling seem pervasive in law, the Article shows that each corner solution exists in the American legal system. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” “Don’t Ask, Must Tell,” “Must Ask, Must Tell,” and “Must Ask, Don’t Tell” each fill a notable regulatory space. After cataloguing examples, the Article gives accounts of why law gravitates toward particular combinations of asking and telling rules in various domains, and offers some normative evaluation of these strategies. The Article emphasizes that asking and telling norms sometimes—but only sometimes—are driven by concerns about how people will use the information obtained. Understanding the connection to use norms, in turn, provides guidance for a rapidly advancing future in which big data analytics and expanding surveillance will make old practices of direct question-and-answer less significant, if not obsolete. In any event, the matrix of rule combinations highlighted here can reveal new pathways for reforming our practices of asking and telling in life and law.

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