The Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last month touched off a firestorm of debate with respect to the place of free speech in society. The interesting thing is that this debate has been ongoing for years and for Americans, it is an especially important issue because freedom of speech is enshrined in their Constitution under the First Amendment which reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment legal battles have been legendary (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Amendment_to_the_United_States_Constitution has a good summary of some of the most prominent case law) and the fight to maintain this important constitutional right is one engaged in willingly and forcefully by the First Amendment Lawyers Association.
To find out more about this association, I recently spoke to Robert Corn-Revere, immediate past president, National Chairman and well known First Amendment lawyer who gave me some background on whom they are and why they do what they do.
Progressive Lawyer: Please introduce yourself and describe your role in the First Amendment Lawyers Association.
Robert Corn-Revere: I have been practicing law, primarily First Amendment and Media law for quite a few years. I am currently a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Washington DC and was the immediate past president and national Chairman of the First Amendment Lawyers Association of which I have been a member for approximately 10 years. I am quite lucky to have been able to carve out a practice focusing on the First Amendment.
PL: What exactly is the First Amendment Lawyers Association?
RCR: The First Amendment Lawyers Association is an Illinois-based, incorporated, not-for-profit association. Originally formed in the late 1960’s, FALA now boasts over 180 members. Its membership includes the most prominent First Amendment attorneys in the United States, covering virtually every state. It is a by invitation only group that is fairly small and close knit. It came together during the 70’s out of a sense of common interest to share ideals and generate expertise.
We deal with a highly desirable specialty in the law, that of First Amendment rights. The members have a strong philosophical commitment to this. One member even has the First Amendment tattooed on his arm! Members are from a lot of different political backgrounds and interests but First Amendment rights take precedence over all else.
PL: What is it about this type of law that is so appealing?
RCR: It is a very specialized and narrow specialty. Yet it is a broad field. The law of free expression has a number of different spheres of practice that don’t intersect that often. People often associate First Amendment issues with obscenity laws but over the years the field has broadened its focus from this to other areas.
For example, communications law is my background and it is very much a part of First Amendment law. Also, in many ways this is administrative law that has a First Amendment dimension. It intersects with administration law on multiple levels. First amendment issues also come up in the context of adult content and the Federal Communications Bar Association also deals with First amendment issues. I work very closely with organizations like the Media Law Resource Center in this context. In addition to that, traditional media and press law intersect with First Amendment law as well so you can see what I mean about being a narrow specialty and yet a broad field.
PL: Do you offer any internships or volunteer opportunities?
RCR: Not currently as an organization but we are actively looking into expanding and including more student outreach initiatives as well as student membership.
I strongly encourage law students to read up and study First Amendment issues both within the context of their constitutional law courses and outside the classroom. There are great blogs out there covering these issues like Popehat and The Legal Satyricon . I also highly recommend reading “Kindly Inquisitors” by Jonathan Rauch for an excellent overview of the issues and why free speech is so important to protect.
PL: How do you feel about the evolution of Free Speech in the time you have been practicing? It seems that people only advocate free speech when the topic is something they agree with, when they don’t maybe not so much.
RCR: That reminds me of the quote by Nat Hentoff: “Free Speech for me and not for thee.”
The First amendment is indivisible. It applies to all types of speech, no matter the content. Some people feel that some speech is not important enough for protection but we vociferously disagree with this outlook. The only way to search for truth is to allow for the free expression of ideas. Think of how far we have come. Think Lenny Bruce in the sixties and George Carlin in the seventies. Comedians are reluctant to perform on college campuses these days because of a growing atmosphere that frowns on free speech. Free speech on campus is a big issue. Universities were once the bastion of free speech and thought and yet they are now becoming free speech battlegrounds as universities attempt to limit inconvenient speech. Students are taught to expect that they don’t have freedom of expression and this is just wrong. It is a civic obligation to seek out ideas and people that disagree with you. This is the essence of a free and democratic society.
And on the Internet it has gone from a global free speech medium to one of how do we limit all the free speech out there in cased it offends someone.
PL: How do you balance your work life with your private life?
RCR: If you are fortunate to practice law in an area you are passionate about it becomes less important to figure out what you do with your free time. People involved with things they are passionate about look for more ways to do more of it. Balance is always an issue. Yet people who work in this area are defined by what they believe in.
PL: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to Progressive Lawyer.
RCR: It has been my pleasure.
For more information on the First Amendment Lawyers Association please consult their website here: http://firstamendmentlawyers.org/
Until next week!