Lawyer Floyd Abrams Discusses Free Speech At Jackson Center

Samantha Barbas, law professor at the University of Buffalo, introduces famed attorney Floyd Abrams, right. Local lawyer Greg Peterson, center, interviewed Abrams as part of the Joseph Gerace Lecture series at the Robert H. Jackson Center. Abrams is famous for his work on freedom of speech, specifically with the Pentagon Papers. P-J photo by Jordan W. Patterson

Floyd Abrams, currently an attorney at Cahill Gordan and Reindell in New York, visited the Robert H. Jackson Center on Tuesday morning to discuss free speech.

Abrams said the Pentagon Papers and the subsequent court case in 1971 served as a moment in time when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of free speech and restricted government censorship. Abrams was one of the lawyers who worked on that case and inevitably became synonymous with the title, “First Amendment lawyer” thereafter.

The discussion, titled “Free Expression and the Scope of the First Amendment: A Conversation with Floyd Abrams,” allowed Greg Peterson, local lawyer and interviewer for Jackson Center lectures, to openly talk with Abrams about his career and the state of free speech in modern times.

Abrams was introduced by Samantha Barbas, professor of law at the University of Buffalo. She discussed Abrams’ long career and his new book, “Soul of the First Amendment.”

Barbas referred to Abrams as one the nation’s greatest advocates free speech.

“Mr. Abrams has fought zealously for the rights of the press,” Barbas said. “Winning important victories for the media in precedent setting cases. Mr. Abrams has been described as ‘the most significant first amendment lawyer in our age.'”

Abrams graduated from Cornell University and Yale Law School. Arkwright town supervisor Nick Norton, also a graduate of Yale Law School and a colleague of Abrams, helped bring Abrams to the Robert H. Jackson Center.

“This is really a thrill for us to have a man of the stature of Floyd Abrams come here,” Peterson said.

Abrams and Peterson discussed the long history of free speech and the current state of the First Amendment. For Abrams, one of the biggest moments in the history of First Amendment court cases was Robert H. Jackson’s opinion on “West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette,” where Jackson delivered the 6-3 ruling in favor of Walter Barnette. Barnette’s children were Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance because of their religious beliefs. Abrams said that this was a landmark moment for freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

As Abrams’ biggest case with the Pentagon Papers involved a government whistleblower, Abrams weighed in on the difference between WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. Abrams said that when leakers release information they have a responsibility not to put anyone in harm’s way. He attributed this reckless behavior with Assange and his outfit.

Prior to Abrams’ work on the Pentagon Papers case, he worked on “New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.” This ruling established the actual malice standard which requires a public figure who is suing for libel against a media organization to prove that the news outlet knew a piece of information was false beforehand or that there was reckless action.

Adams also referenced the fact that the Bill of Rights almost wasn’t created when “the framers” were drafting a potential constitution. According to Abrams, while it took a while to draft the primary goal of giving people the freedom to religion, press and speech.

Abrams called the Constitution a blueprint and a guideline for how our country is supposed to operate.

“The Constitution and the Bill of Rights is a legal document,” Abrams said. “This is not rhetoric, this is not poetry, this is a legal binding document and, because it is, the First Amendment has come to have enormous impact in protecting the people from governmental suppression.”