First Amendment attorney discusses freedom of speech

‘Keep politics out, civility in, and put aside partisan blinders’
July 22, 2019

Nationally prominent First Amendment lawyer Robert Corn-Revere drew a crowd of about 60 to Lewes Public Library July 13. His presentation was part of the Taking a Stand summer lecture series cohosted by the library and Topical Seminars.

Corn-Revere is best known for successfully petitioning New York Gov. George Pataki for a posthumous pardon of comedian Lenny Bruce in 2003. The speaker discussed the process of seeking that very first posthumous pardon in New York state along with a number of other issues related to the First Amendment to our nation’s Constitution, which protects freedom of speech.

Ron Collins, a law professor, resident of Lewes and one of the founders of the Lewes History Book Festival, co-authored a book  with David Skover about Bruce and his conviction in 1964 on obscenity charges related to his use of more than 100 obscene words during a performance in New York City’s Greenwich Village. The law on which the conviction was based was eventually thrown out, but Bruce died before that conviction could be overturned.

Collins and Skover, while researching their book, decided that Bruce deserved a pardon and sought out Corn-Revere to take on the petition. “We don’t feel there's a statute of limitations on correcting an injustice,” Collins told the crowd at the library. Corn-Revere took on the task at no charge. “Ron is my pro bono pimp,” said Corn-Revere. “He’s always pitching no-pay work for me. But we live in a free society, and you don’t turn people into criminals and lock them up just for speaking their minds. Ron and David asked me to seek the posthumous pardon, and I agreed to take it on.”

Corn-Revere said when Bruce was convicted, obscenity laws in the U.S. were in a  state of flux. “Bruce was caught in the middle. Up until 1957, this country’s obscenity laws were based on the Victorian England approach which ruled that speech or statements could be labeled obscene if they would corrupt a person susceptible to hearing them. But then a revolution took place in First Amendment law starting in the 1960s. Prosecution for books went away and prosecution for comedy acts went away. Obscenity is not protected by our Constitution, but the government has a heavy burden of proof to prove that it isn’t protected. We are a free society, and speech will be protected.”

Collins noted that Bruce was the last comedian in this country prosecuted for obscenity.

Asked about hate speech, Corn-Revere said it is fully protected by the First Amendment. What is not protected, he said, are threats, defamation using false or injurious statements about another person, and speech that can create an imminent danger of inciting violence or fights.

“The best way to combat hate speech,” said Corn-Revere, “is to exercise your rights in opposition. Counter-protesting is very effective and just as protected as hate speech.” He also said anonymous speech is fully protected by the First Amendment. “Courts are very protective of that. Anonymous speech,” he said, “has played an important role in our nation’s history.”

Corn-Revere said one of the most important aspects of First Amendment law is keeping politics out of it. “Censorship is like poison gas. The winds can shift.”

Collins seconded Corn-Revere’s statement. “If our experiment in liberty is going to work, people have to put their partisan blinders aside. And what makes First Amendment rights possible is civility.” 

Subscribe to the Daily Newsletter