Monday, February 4, 2008

I Heart the First Amendment

"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."

Check out this awesome case I once learned about in media law:

Anthony Griffin, Lawyer ACLU Defends Klansman
The saga of Anthony Griffin began one day in May 1993 when, as a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU of Texas, he was asked to take on the defense of a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klansman, Michael Lowe, had received a subpoena for the organization's membership records; the state human rights commission sought the records during an inquiry into bombing threats that impeded the integration of a Vidor, Texas, housing project. Lowe risked contempt for refusing to disclose the records and realized he needed legal help. At that point he turned to the ACLU, which recognized an important civil liberties issue in his case and assigned it to the first available volunteer, not realizing that the lawyer next in line was African American.

Anthony Griffin did not hesitate in taking on Lowe's defense, which he pursued with vigor and eloquence, eventually prevailing in the Texas Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. Not only did he recognize at once the potential importance of membership lists to groups like the NAACP. Even more basically, he felt a special responsibility not to duck the hard or awkward cases; he insisted that such an assignment was "an honor-any time you have an opportunity to defend the Bill of Rights." Griffin added that "If I don't stand up and defend the Klan's right to free speech, my right to free speech will be gone."

When Lowe first arrived at his newly assigned lawyer's office, the issue of race had not entered his mind. He needed a lawyer and could hardly afford to hire one of his own. Moreover, the receptionist in the office at the time was white. As Lowe began to realize, just before Griffin greeted him, that his fate might be in the hands of a person of a different color, it was too late to do anything other than accept what the ACLU had offered. The presumptive dissonance between lawyer and client simply had to yield on this occasion to practical exigency, and the charting of a credible First Amendment defense began at once.

In fact, the case was a compelling one; in countless instances involving groups like the NAACP, membership lists had been legally protected to ensure the associational freedom of those who had joined a "controversial" and "suspect" civil rights organization. While the issue had not arisen in the Klan context since the 1920s, when the Supreme Court had sustained New York's right to compel disclosure of Klan membership rosters and files, it was basically the same First Amendment issue.

Regrettably, not all of Griffin's colleagues and usual allies saw the parallel so clearly. Fellow officers of the Texas NAACP (which Griffin had served for years as general counsel) sharply rebuked him for defending a Klansman and demanded his resignation. Griffin refused to back down, or to relinquish his official NAACP role. The issue bounced between the state and national NAACP offices for some weeks. Both local and national leaders declined to visit or address Griffin personally, or to elaborate their displeasure. Eventually the Texas branch simply announced that Griffin "ha[d] been relieved of his duties because of his decision to represent the Ku Klux Klan in a civil liberties case."

National groups quickly began to recognize Griffin's courage in not only taking on the defense of Michael Lowe in so volatile a case but also his singular persistence despite abundant pressure to trim sails or change course. In the fall of 1993, the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression conferred upon him its first William J. Brennan, Jr., Award, at a dinner that the Justice himself attended, along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and many other prominent Washingtonians. The award was created to recognize singular commitment to the free speech values that Justice Brennan's career had exemplified. Griffin seemed the perfect choice to inaugurate this encomium. On that occasion, Griffin not only explained why he felt so strongly about the correctness of the course he had taken, but also recounted the heavy toll that commitment had taken in both personal and professional terms. It was not only being cashiered by the NAACP that hurt deeply. Relatives, friends, and colleagues, both black and white, had far greater difficulty than he would have expected in accepting the rightness of his position. Such reactions, however, never dissuaded Griffin himself. In fact, he later took on another case, involving a Ku Klux Klan request to "adopt" a stretch of Texas highway. Most recently he has been in the news for successfully pressing in the U.S. Supreme Court a cause not likely to be any more popular in his part of Texas: the elimination of prayer at the start of high school football games. His persistence has been truly heroic, as well as being productive of some very welcome First Amendment law.

Even though the KKK are a bunch of ignorant a'holes, I really admire the way this lawyer stood up for his belief in free speech, even speech directed against him. As Voltaire once said, "I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."


Kelly Jean Walden said...

Too bad that amendment doesn't protect your face. Get it out of here.

Anonymous said...

While KJW assumes the position of volatile commentary, I would like to say, "Bravo." I love stories of people sticking to their beliefs no matter the storm they face. You've told me this story before, and I love it just the same now. I admire people who ignore pressure around them and stand up for what is right, or what they believe in (this is my biggest weakness!). Kudos to Griffin, and to you for retelling his story.
I'm glad to be home . . . we should do something. And also . .
Bleck - I just ended on a very gross part of Heroes.