Category: History of Law


FAN 126 (First Amendment News) Geoffrey Stone: “Free Speech on Campus: A Challenge of Our Times”

This issue of First Amendment News reproduces the text of a speech (The Aims of Education Address) Professor Geoffrey Stone delivered at the University of Chicago on September 22nd. The Aims Address is given each year by a member of the University of Chicago faculty to welcome the entering college class. It is delivered in the University’s Rockefeller Chapel. (A video of Professor Stone’s address can be found here.

Given the controversy over campus speech codes and the University of Chicago’s open letter to its students, I thought the following remarks would help inform reasoned discussion of the issue of free speech on college campuses. I have added subheadings, hyperlinks, bullets, and photographs to Professor Stone’s text.     

Professor Stone is is the Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and the author of Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime: From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism (W.W. Norton, 2005) and Sex and the Constitution: Sex, Religion, and Law from America’s Origins to the Twenty-First Century (Liveright, W.W. Norton, Mar 21, 2017). 


Welcome to what you will come to know as The University and to the beginning of what I hope and trust will be one of the great adventures of your life. Whenever I think of students arriving here for the first time, I can’t help but recall an incident involving Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Professor Stone delivering the Aims Address

Professor Stone delivering the Aims Address

At the time of this incident, Holmes was a very old man, nearing 90 years of age, in the autumn of his very long and very distinguished career as a Justice on the Suprme Court of the United States. On this particular occasion, Holmes was on a train headed north from Washington. He was deeply engrossed in reading a legal brief when the conductor knocked on the door to his compartment. Recognizing Holmes, the conductor respectfully asked for his ticket. Holmes looked in his coat pocket — no ticket. He looked in his vest pocket — no ticket. He reached into his trouser pocket — no ticket. Growing ever more frantic, Holmes began rummaging desperately through his briefcase — still no ticket.

At this point, the conductor, trying to calm Holmes, said “Never mind, Mr. Justice. It’s really not a problem. When you find the ticket, just mail it in to the company.” To which Holmes exploded: “You dolt! I don’t give a damn about your ticket, I just want to know where the hell I’m supposed to be going!”

In your first days on this campus, you will likely feel a bit like Justice Holmes — you will want to know where the hell you’re supposed to be going. My task this evening is to offer at least some sense of direction.

[A True Story about Rebels, circa 1918]

I should like to begin by telling you a bit about my world. It is the world of the law. More specifically, it is the world of constitutional law. Law is about stories. It is about real people involved in real disputes with real consequences. So, I shall tell you a story.

This story begins during World War I. As you may or may not know, World War I was not a particularly popular war with the American people, whose sympathies were divided. Many Americans vigorously opposed the Wilson administration’s decision to intervene in the conflict that was then raging in Europe, arguing that our intervention was both unwise and immoral.

Not surprisingly, such opposition did not sit well with the government. In 1917 Attorney General Thomas Gregory, attacking the loyalty of war opponents, declared: “May God have mercy on them, for they can expect none from . . . an avenging government.”

Gregory wasn’t kidding about the “avenging” government. In 1918, Congress enacted the Sedition Act, which made it a crime for any person to utter “any disloyal, . . . scurrilous, or abusive language intended to cause contempt . . . for the . . . government of the United States, the Constitution, or the flag.” True to the Attorney General’s threat, federal authorities launched more than 2,000 prosecutions against individuals who wrote or spoke against the war or the draft.

The defendants in Abrams v. US

The defendants in Abrams v. United States

One such prosecution involved five young, Russian-Jewish emigrants who were roughly your age at the time. In the summer of 1918, the United States sent a contingent of marines to Vladivostok in Russia. Concerned that this was the first step of an American effort to crush the Russian Revolution, these five self-proclaimed socialists threw several thousand copies of each of two leaflets — one in English, the other in Yiddish — from several rooftops on the lower east side of New York City.

The leaflets, which were boldly signed “The Rebels,” were addressed to other Russian emigrants. After stating that the Rebels hated “German militarism,” they warned those who worked in ammunition factories that they were “producing bullets, bayonets and cannon to murder not only the Germans, but also your dearest, your best, who are in Russia and are fighting for their freedom.”

The “Rebels” were immediately arrested by the military police. After a controversial trial, they were convicted of violating the Sedition Act of 1918. The trial judge, disgusted by their behavior and their beliefs, sentenced the Rebels to terms ranging up to twenty years in prison.

The Rebels appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court of the United States, claiming that their convictions violated the First Amendment, which guarantees that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.” In Abrams v. United States, the Supreme Court, in a seven-to-two decision, rejected this claim and upheld the convictions. For the majority of the Court, this was an easy case. Because the natural tendency of the defendants’ speech was to generate opposition to the war, it was not within “the freedom of speech” protected by the Constitution.

Justice Holmes

Justice Holmes

Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the same Justice Holmes who some years later was to lose his railway ticket, dissented. Holmes’s dissenting opinion in Abrams is worth reading, for it remains one of the most eloquent statements ever written by a Justice of the Supreme Court about the freedom of expression.

Holmes wrote: “Persecution for the expression of opinion seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises . . . and want a certain result with all your heart you naturally [want to] sweep away all opposition. . . . But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe . . . that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”

Holmes therefore concluded that “we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression” even of “opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten” compelling government interests that an immediate check is necessary to save the nation.

Professor Harry Kalven (1914-1974)

Professor Harry Kalven (1914-1974)

I first read this passage, written almost a century ago, when I was a law student at this University, almost half-a-century ago. It has engaged my energy and curiosity ever since. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that it was my puzzling over this passage under the probing tutelage of my law school professor Harry Kalven that, for better or worse, put me on the path to my career and, indeed, to where I stand before you this evening.

[The Aims of Education]

But now I must change direction, for this is not to be a discourse on the First Amendment. It is, rather, to be a talk about the aims of education. Happily, these are not unrelated subjects. To the contrary, the longer I have puzzled over the meaning of free expression, and the longer I have thought about education, the more the two seem to me to converge. Indeed, neither really is worth all that much without the other. And, with that in mind, I would like to turn to what I see as the intersection of free expression and education, and to the subject of academic freedom, for it is at this intersection that we will find the most fundamental values of the world you are about to enter.

I hope to accomplish three things in this part of my talk:

  • First, I will trace briefly for you the history of academic freedom, for it is only by understanding where we have been that we can appreciate — in both senses of the word — where we are today.
  • Second, I will talk a bit about this University and about the special role it has played in the struggle to establish and to preserve academic freedom.
  • And third, I will offer some thoughts about what all this means for you and about the responsibilities that we today bear in common.

It is important to understand that, like the freedom of speech, academic freedom is not a law of nature. It does not exist of its own force. It is always vulnerable, and should never be taken for granted. Indeed, until well into the 19th century, real freedom of thought was neither practiced nor professed in American universities.

To the contrary, any real freedom of inquiry or expression in American colleges in this era was smothered by the dominance of religion and by the prevailing theory of “doctrinal moralism,” which assumed that the worth of an idea must be judged by what the institution’s leaders declared its moral value to be. Thus, through the first half of the nineteenth century American colleges squelched any notion of free and open discussion or intellectual curiosity. Any student or faculty member who dared argue, for example, that women were equal to men, that blacks were equal to whites, or that homosexuality was not immoral would surely be expelled or fired without hesitation.

Similarly, through the first half of the nineteenth century, as the nation moved towards Civil War, any professor or student in the North who openly defended slavery, or any professor or student in the South who openly challenged slavery, could readily be dismissed, disciplined, or expelled. When a professor at the University of North Carolina expressed sympathy for the 1856 Republican presidential candidate, the students burned him in effigy and he was dismissed by the trustees. When a professor at Franklin College in Pennsylvania admitted he was not an abolitionist, he was promptly fired.

Several decades later, a furious battle arose over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, with traditionalists charging not only that Darwin was wrong, but also that his beliefs were dangerous, immoral, and ungodly. As a consequence of the furious battle in the academy over evolution, new academic goals came to be embraced.

Dean William Rainey Harper (1856 – 1906)

President William Rainey Harper (1856 – 1906)

For the first time, to criticize, as well as to preserve, traditional moral values and understandings became an accepted function of higher education, and by 1892 William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago, could boldly assert: “When for any reason the administration of a university attempts to dislodge a professor or punish a student because of his political or religious sentiments “at that moment the institution has ceased to be a university.”

But despite such noble sentiments, the battle for academic freedom has been a continuing and fiercely contentious one. In the closing years of the 19th century, for example, businessmen who had accumulated vast industrial wealth began to support universities on an unprecedented scale. But that support was not without strings, and during this era professors who offended wealthy donors by criticizing their business practices were dismissed from such leading universities as Cornell and Stanford.

Then, during the World War I, patriotic zealots persecuted and, as we have seen, even prosecuted those who questioned the wisdom or morality of the war. In the face of such outrage, universities collapsed almost completely in their defense of academic freedom. Students and professors were systematically expelled and fired at colleges and universities across the nation merely for encouraging a spirit of indifference toward the war.

Similar issues arose again, with a vengeance, during the Cold War in the age of Joseph McCarthy. In the late 1940s and 1950s, most universities excluded those even suspected of Communist sympathies from university life. Yale President Charles Seymour, for example, went so far as to boast that “there will be no witch hunts at Yale, because there will be no witches. We will neither admit nor hire anyone with Communist sympathies.”

As this history demonstrates, the freedom to question, the freedom to challenge, the freedom to inquire is not to be taken for granted. Academic freedom is, in fact, a hard-bought acquisition in an endless struggle to preserve the right of each individual, student and faculty alike, to seek wisdom, knowledge, and truth, free of the censor’s sword.

[The Univ. of Chicago & Academic Freedom] Read More


UCLA Law Review Vol. 63, Issue 6

Volume 63, Issue 6 (August 2016)

President Nixon’s Indian Law Legacy: A Counterstory Carole Goldberg 1506
Principles of International Law That Support Claims of Indian Tribes to Water Resources Reid Peyton Chambers & William F. Stephens 1530
Crime and Governance in Indian Country Angela R. Riley 1564
Recentering Tribal Criminal Jurisdiction Addie C. Rolnick 1638
The Politics of Inclusion: Indigenous Peoples and U.S. Citizenship Rebecca Tsosie 1692



Tribal Sovereignty, Tribal Court Legitimacy, and Public Defense Lindsay Cutler 1752
The Double-Edged Sword of Sovereignty by the Barrel: How Native Nations Can Wield Environmental Justice in the Fight Against the Harms of Fracking Geneva E.B. Thompson 1818

Representing the Bill of Rights During the Cold War

Bill_of_Rights_1966_U.S._stamp.1Building on my prior post, I want to highlight this image. It is a stamp that was issued in 1966-67 to mark the 175th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. The design was by Herb Block, the longtime political cartoonist for The Washington Post, and was called “Freedom Checking Tyranny.” The mailed fist on the opposite side of the open hand is meant to evoke totalitarianism, which at the time was widely understood as communism.

I also find it amusing that the quote on the stamp is not in the Bill of Rights (and, as far as I know, does not come from any famous speech or Supreme Court opinion).


Tribute to Lenny Bruce on the Occasion of the 50th Anniversary of His Death

This series is dedicated to the memory of John Sisko (1958-2016) —  artist, writer, teacher, gallerist, friend, and free-spirit. Sadly, his artistic tribute to Tom Paine never came to pass. Still, his last words revealed the measure of the man, his revolutionary grain: “I have lived my life creatively and uniquely and on my own terms.” Yes you did, John. 



(credit: NYT)

To commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the death of America’s most uninhibited comedian, I have prepared five posts for the occasion. My interest in Bruce traces back to my book with David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002 & 2012 — 10th anniversary issue / NPR interview), followed by our successful petition to Governor George Patakai to posthumously pardon the comedian.  

Recent & Related 


 “Lenny Bruce – In His Own, Unheard, Words,” BBC, July 30, 2016 (“Fifty years since Lenny Bruce died, Mark Steel explores his legacy in the 21st century, drawing on personal tape recordings from a newly established Lenny Bruce archive at Brandeis University, as well as classic clips from some of his ground-breaking comedy and social commentary routines. With contributions from Lenny’s daughter, Kitty Bruce, and from those who knew and wrote about him, including author Laurence Schiller.”)


Philip Eil, “50 Years After His Death, Lenny Bruce’s Spirit Lives,” The Forward, August 1, 2016


Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, and Kitty Bruce Speak Out About Their Fathers and the Fight for Free Speech in Comedy” (FIRE: Video/Podcast) (really a remarkable video)

Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, & Kitty Bruce

        Kelly Carlin, Rain Pryor, & Kitty Bruce

Can We Take a Joke? (FIRE documentary featuring Lenny Bruce)

Paul Krassner, Remembering Lenny Bruce, 50 years after his death, Los Angeles Times, July 28, 2016

 Alex Wohl, Standup Philosopher, Brandeis Magazine, Summer (2016)

(Credit: Vice Squad Mag., April, 1963)

(Credit: Vice Squad Mag., April, 1963)


Lenny Bruce – 50 Years Later: Still Funny & “Unsafe”

Warning: The man of whom you are about to read once offended many, and his words continue to do so today.  

Lenny Bruce died for our sins.

FileLenny-bruce-on-stage.jpgOkay, it’s just a joke.

Still, the uninhibited comedian’s legacy did have its redemptive side. After he died, fifty years ago today, no comedian was ever again prosecuted for word crimes uttered in a comedy club. By that cultural measure, Lenny Bruce became the patron saint of standup comedians who freely mock those who trade in hypocrisy.

Before there was Larry David, Penn Jillette, Margaret Cho, Lisa Lampanelli, Chris Rock, or George Carlin, there was Lenny Bruce. He was the quintessential take-no-prisoners comedian. His comedic fare was robust; his style avant-garde; his method crude-blue; and his message upset some and delighted others. Did he shock? – yes. Did he offend? – yes. And was he funny? – yes, outrageously so, at least at his best moments. It’s all in a new documentary titled Can We Take a Joke?

Taboo: That was his off-limits destination. En route he tore into hypocrisy with buzz-saw vigor. No matter the subject – race, religion, politics, or sex – Bruce gave no dime to the Sunday-pious crowd. But when one deals in the forbidden, when one mocks the righteous, and when one does so with razor-cutting humor, there are consequences.

Such as?

Lenny Bruce was prosecuted for obscenity in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York for his comedy club bits. At great professional and financial cost, he was nonetheless exonerated in all of the cases except the one in New York. By the time the New York club owner (Bruce’s co-defendant) successfully appealed his conviction, Lenny was dead (broke, and with a needle spiked in his arm). He died a convicted comedian – the last one in our history.

(ht: Chuck Harter]

(ht: Chuck Harter]

December 23, 2003. On that day New York Governor George Pataki posthumously pardoned Lenny Bruce. “Freedom of speech,” he declared, “is one of the greatest American liberties, and I hope this pardon serves as a reminder of the precious freedoms we are fighting to preserve as we continue to wage the war on terror.”

The people who must never have power are the humorless. — Christopher Hitchins

Have we remembered that “reminder”? Yes, and no.

On the one hand, we now enjoy an almost unprecedented degree of free-speech freedom. It is our American badge of liberty — that willingness to tolerate that with which we disagree. On the other hand, anything deemed offensive is today banned on many college campuses. The trend is to create “safe zones” where students are protected from ideas or words that might upset them.

At Clemson University, unwelcome “verbal . . . conduct of a sexual nature” constitutes “sexual harassment.” This definition includes a vast amount of protected speech such as a joke or comment that any student subjectively finds to be offensive.

At Clark University, its Code of Student Conduct prohibits “telling jokes based on a stereotype.” Of course, that is something Lenny Bruce often did in order to combat the kind of prejudice lurking behind offensive stereotyping.

Grinnell College bans “bias-motivated incidents,” which include “an expression of hostility against a person, group, or property thereof because of such person’s (or group’s) . . . religion . . .” By that measure, Bruce’s irreverent “Religions Incorporated” and “Christ and Moses” routines could be banned at Grinnell.

Florida State University’s “A Summons to Responsible Freedom” defines “Sexual Misconduct” to include “unwanted [or] unwelcome . . . sexual or gender-based . . . comments.” By that punitive gauge there is much in Bruce’s How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1992, reissued 2016) that would catch the censorial eye.

And then there is the capper: Northeastern University’s acceptable use policy, which prohibits the electronic transmission of any material “which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive.” Lenny Bruce’s prosecutors used much the same subjective yardstick to indict him. If “Saint Lenny” were alive, he would have a devil of a time ripping into campus such speech codes, the ones that cabin the mind in solitary confinement.

When Bruce was posthumously pardoned, the comedian Tom Smothers said: “So many of us today owe so much to Lenny Bruce.” Indeed. Regrettably, it is a debt still owed on far too many campuses across this land. No joke!


Looking Back: Lenny Bruce’s Obscenity Prosecutors & First Amendment Defense Lawyers

Ephraim London

Ephraim London (NY defense lawyer) (credit: Getty Images)

Al Bendich (SF lawyer) (credit: NYT)

Harry Kalven, Jr. (IL appellate counsel)

Harry Kalven, Jr. (Illinois appellate counsel)

Al Bendich (SF defense counsel) (credit: NYT)

The Lenny Bruce story — the one about his obscenity trials (circa 1961-64 in SF, LA, Chicago & NY) — is a remarkable story in the history of the First Amendment as well as in the culture of comedy. You’ll not find the story on the pages of the the United States Supreme Court, though Bruce forever changed the law when it came to uninhibited comedy. You will, however, find traces of that story in the 3,500 pages of trial transcripts titled People v. Bruce (sometime this fall those transcripts will be available in their entirety on FIRE’s online First Amendment Library). There in black-and-white you will find a story about laws invoked in factual situations where it was unclear that any prosecution was warranted.  It is also the story of using the law in ways that at the time were constitutionally suspect. And then there is the human story, the tragic one that first destroyed a man’s career and then destroyed him.

The backdrop of this story is the lawyers who prosecuted and defended the uninhibited comedian. It is said that the dead live on the lips of the living. Mindful of that admonition, below I have listed the names of those lawyers (adapted from my book with David Skover: The Trials of Lenny Bruce). In our judge-centric world, we tend to overlook the lawyers, the ones who are the first to plow the earth of the law. So note their names and roles in People v. Bruce.

The names listed below are those involved in Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials (as distinguished from, say, his drug arrests and trials).

My experience with Lenny Bruce . . . was the first time I saw in action the government’s use of the might and power of the criminal justice system to crush dissent. William M. Kunstler 

Prosecutors (12)

San Francisco:

  1. Arthur Schaefer (1st Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)
  2. Albert C. Wallenberg (2nd Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)

Los Angeles

  1. Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. (pretrial hearing on motion to dismiss Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  2. Ronald Ross  (consolidated Troubadour & Unicorn obscenity trial)


  1. Samuel V. Banks (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  2. Edward J. Egan (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  3. Willie Whiting (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  4. William J. Martin (appeal of conviction in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  5. James R. Thompson (appeal of conviction in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
Richard Kuh (NY prosecutor) (credit: Getty Images)

Richard Kuh (NY prosecutor) (credit: Getty Images)

New York

  1. Gerald Harris (grand jury & pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Richard H. Kuh (Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Vincent J. Cuccia (procedures for appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)

Prosecutors re Appeal of Companion Case (People v. Solomon)

  1. H. Richard Uviller (post judgment motions before New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term)
  2. Harold R. Shapiro (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction before New York Supreme Court, Appellate Term)

First Amendment Defense Lawyers (23)

San Francisco:

  1. Seymour Fried (1st Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)
  2. Albert M. Bendich (2nd Jazz Work Shop obscenity trial)

Los Angeles

  1. Melvin Belli  (represented by his associate, Charles Ashman, in Troubadour obscenity case)
  2. Seymour Lazar (pretrial matters in Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  3. Sydney M. Irmas (Trolly Ho obscenity case)
  4. Burton M. Marks (consolidated Troubadour & Unicorn obscenity trial)
  5. John Marshall (Illinois extradition order in Gate of Horn obscenity case)


Maurice Rosenfield (IL appellate counsel w Kalven)

Maurice Rosenfield (IL appellate counsel w Kalven)

  1. George J. Cotsirilos (pretrial matters in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  2. Donald Page Moore (pretrial matters in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  3. Samuel Friedfeld (Gate of Horn attorney originally retained to represent Bruce & club owner Alan Robback in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  4. Earl Warren Zaidans (Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  5. George C. Pontiffs (sentencing hearing in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  6. Harry Kalven, Jr. (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  7. William R. Ming, Jr. (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
  8. Maurice Rosenfield (appeal of conviction  in Gate of Horn obscenity trial)
Martin Garbus (one of NY defense counsel)

Martin Garbus (one of NY defense counsel w London)

New York

  1. Howard Squadron (bail & bond for arrest in pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Lawrence H. Rogovin (appears for Howard Squadron in pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Ephraim London (lead counsel in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  4. Martin Garbus (co-counsel in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  5. Harry Herschman (sentencing hearing  in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  6. Allen G. Schwartz (certificate of reasonable doubt for appeal in  in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity case)
  7. Edward de Grazia (§1983 civil rights law suit)
  8. William M. Kunstler (advisory capacity in §1983 civil rights law suit)

* * * *

Attorneys on Appeal for Bruce’s Co-defendant, Howard L. Solomon (People v. Solomon)

  1. Bentley Kassal (bail and bond for arrest and pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  2. Herbert Monte-Levy (pretrial matters in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  3. Allen G. Schwartz (Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  4. William S. Miller (sentencing hearing in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  5. William S. Miller (sentencing hearing in Cafe Au Go Go obscenity trial)
  6. William E. Hellerstein (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)
  7. Milton Adler (appeal of Cafe Au Go Go conviction)

FullSizeRender (1)

Posthumous Pardon Petition  re People v. Bruce (1964)

  1. Robert Corn-Revere (counsel for Petitioners Ronald Collins & David Skover)
Robert Corn-Revere (posthumous pardon)

Robert Corn-Revere (posthumous pardon)

* * * *  

 No to be overlooked are the nine club owners who were either persecuted or prosecuted in connection with Lenny Bruce’s performances in their clubs. See The Trials of Lenny Bruce, p. 456 (2002).

There is also the story of the judges who presided over Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials. That is, however, another post for another day.  Besides, there were so many of them. See The Trials of Lenny Bruce, pp. 454-456 (2002).

→ And finally, there is the story of a relentless journalist who played a key role in the Lenny Bruce First Amendment story.  His name: Nat Hentoff.


The Great University Chicago Trio (Kalven, Rosenfield & Ming) & Their Defense of Lenny Bruce


Behold People v. Lenny Bruce.  And note his three lawyers who handled the appeal of his obscenity conviction for his performance at the famed Gate of Horn nightclub in Chicago (December 1962):

Harry Kalven & Maurice Rosenfield

Harry Kalven & Maurice Rosenfield

Professor Kalven, the famed First Amendment scholar, had long been critical of the Court’s ruling in Roth v. United States (1957) and its progeny. He aired those reservations in his seminal 1960 Supreme Court Review article titled “The Metaphysics of the Law of Obscenity.” Thus his interest in People v. Bruce; it presented itself as a test case to reexamine Roth.

William R. Ming, Jr. (credit: U. Chi. archives)

William R. Ming, Jr. (credit: U. Chi. archives)

To help Kalven move from the theoretical to the practical, Kalven collaborated with Maurice Rosenfield and William Ming — two friends, highly reputable lawyers, and colleagues from their University of Chicago Law School days.

Rosenfield, who once co-authored an article with Kalven, was a partner in the law firm of Devoe, Shadur, Mikva, and Plotkin. He had represented Hugh Hefner in the mid-1950s and into the 1960s, and had likewise filed an amicus brief in Roth on behalf of the Authors League of America (Abe Fortas was also on that brief).

Ming was the first African American professor at the University of Chicago Law School. He had been one of Thurgood Marshall’s advisors and worked with Marshall on the Brown v. Board brief (his name was listed between Jack Greenberg and Constance Baker Motley).

There is, to be sure, more to the story, much more.* Suffice it to say that in the end, the trio prevailed when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Bruce’s favor.

* See Ronald Collins & David Skover, The Trials of Lenny Bruce (2002), pp. 175-182.

For more on the Chicago connection, see “Laughter & the First Amendment,” Chicago Humanities Festival (Geoffrey Stone, Ron Collins, Judge Diane Wood & Judge William Bauer — introduced by Burt Joseph) (Geof stone was at his comedic best).


We kill comedians don’t we? — The Lenny Bruce Story

We drove him into poverty and bankruptcy and then murdered him. We all knew what we were doing. We used the law to kill him. — Vincent Cuccia (one of Bruce’s NY prosecutors)

He died before his death. It was apparent that Wednesday (February 9) in 1966 when Lenny Bruce spoke at the Associated Students Speakers’ Program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He rambled; he misspoke; he struggled; and, yes, he bombed. Pathetic. That’s one word. Sad. That’s another. Predictable. Yet another word.

In less than six months he would be officially dead. Who could not see it coming?

Lenny Bruce, left (credit: Getty Images)

Lenny Bruce, left (credit: Getty Images)

Bruce was broke, bankrupt, out of work, out of luck, friendless, divorced, depressed, and junked up. It was so bad that shortly before he died he tried to hit up his parole officer for $10. Worse still, he was a criminal—a year or so earlier he had been convicted and sentenced in New York for an “obscene” bit he did at the Cafe au Go Go.

They hunted him in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. It took its toll: the busts, the prosecutions, the trials, the appeals, and the alienation. And all this for his comedy. He was so taken with his legal plight that he largely abandoned comedy. Besides, by the time he spoke at UCLA no club would hire him. He was a sick and sad comedian, a man waiting to be fitted for a hangman’s noose.

The days of his outrageous humor—“obscene,” “blasphemous,” “sick”—were over. His great comic bits that once pierced the boils of hypocrisy were past tense. He was obsessed with the law; he had a childlike faith in it; and he long thought it would save him. By the time he found himself at UCLA surrounded by students—by that pinpoint in time—he came to a terrifying realization: it was over. Hence, when he spoke of the law, it was like listening to a man with an uncontrollable mental tic—a flick of the head, a fast-and-fleeting flash of an idea, and all capped off with a lunatic’s chuckle.

That day at UCLA much of the laughter was feigned. Or it was an uneasy laughter, an awkward gesture of sympathy. How could it be otherwise? The great Lenny Bruce—the TV and record star, the club star, the well-paid star, and the star of the hip generation—had been reduced to rubble. No wonder he babbled as he tried to speak of free-speech freedom; no surprise that he blathered on as he attempted to discuss the importance of courts and the rule of law; and no wonder it all went south when he sought to make sense of his life at the intersection of despair and destitution.

My point? What people saw that day at UCLA was a Lenny Bruce freak show. But the show, as they say, had to go on . . . and go on it did.

Death changed everything; it would bring Lenny back to life with everlasting applause. It was ironic: death was his best publicity agent. But why?

Because . . .

(Credit: UPI)

(Credit: UPI)

Dead Lenny was no longer a threat to anyone.

Dead Lenny could no longer offend the sensibilities of the righteous.

Dead Lenny was compliant.

That, at least, was the censorial hope. But there was more:

Dead, Lenny the man became Lenny the myth.

Dead, Lenny the uninhibited comedian became a cultural hero.

Dead, Lenny the unruly social commentator became packaged product, and

Dead, Lenny the once bankrupt comic became a cash cow for others

* * * *

It’s true: We feared Lenny alive / yet we love Lenny the dead hero.

Odd the way we turn the First Amendment into a death wish. It is to take a guarantee meant for the living and cram it into a coffin. The result: The censor’s past will likely repeat itself when the next Lenny Bruce comes onto a new life stage.

It is oft repeated: Lenny Bruce is the patron saint of comedians. There is truth there. After all, Lenny Bruce was the last comedian prosecuted and tried for word crimes in a comedy club. He paid the dues, and comedians were the everlasting beneficiaries. Hail Lenny; hail St. Lenny! Okay. But think of it: we canonize a (Jewish) comedian?

“I don’t want to end up like [Lenny Bruce], but I want to be like him.”—Margaret Cho

Which brings me to this question: Why should it be so? Why must we demand dead Lennys? Why not alive Lennys?

Why not celebrate the First Amendment by protecting speech that offends us, repels us, and even unsettles us? Is that asking too much? Perhaps. But that is what the First Amendment asks of us. No joke!


Graetz & Greenhouse on the Burger Court

Over at SCOTUSblog, I interviewed Michael J. Graetz and Linda A. Greenhouse in connection with their new book The Burger Court & the Rise of the Judicial Right (Simon & Schuster, 2016, pp. 450).


Here is an excerpt:

Question: By the end of your book one gets the impression that Justice Powell – the “centrist” jurist – was both the great enabler of the Burger Court’s “counter-revolution,” on the one hand, and the great denier of that very charge, on the other hand. Is that true? What are your thoughts?       

Graetz & Greenhouse: You’re right – Powell’s role was very substantial, to a degree that surprised us. He commanded respect within the Court. His instincts were notably conservative: pro-business, pro-local and state discretion, ready to draw a line against recognizing new rights or handing new remedial powers to the federal courts. He also left a great set of papers (at Washington & Lee), making it easy to trace how often his deepest-held views prevailed and how those views, projected onto the pages of United States Reports, so often trace the story of the Burger Court.


Working 9 to 5: What a Way to Make a Living

Joanna Grossman’s Nine to Five:  How Gender, Sex, and Sexuality Continue to Define the American Workplace is an invaluable contribution to the popular understanding of how gender works – or doesn’t – at work.  With wry humor and a clarity that’s all-too-rare among those who write about the law, Grossman provides a comprehensive, must-read primer for the lay reader.  But Nine to Five also is a bracing corrective to the notion that the issues raised by the popular 1980 movie of the same name are remotely as anachronistic as the bad fashion sported onscreen by Dabney Coleman, Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin. Read More