Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mel Urofsky, Kermit Hall, and New York Times v. Sullivan

With his newest book, Mel Urofsky has accomplished something important and, for me, unexpected.  In New York Times v. Sullivan: Civil Rights, Libel Law, and the Free Press, in the University Press of Kansas series, Landmark Law Cases and American Society, he brings back Kermit Hall, and reminded me of how much I miss him. 

Kermit Hall
Kermit was writing about the important First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan when he went for a swim near his home at Hilton Head, South Carolina, in August 2006.  After what was described as a "swimming accident," he was rescued, but then died.  Kermit was sixty-one.  At the time, he was President of the University at Albany.  He is remembered for his leadership, mentorship and his scholarship.  I remember him most importantly as one a handful of people who welcomed me into the community of legal historians in a way that made me feel, from the beginning, that even though I was an unknown and very junior legal historian in Iowa, I was both welcomed and valued.

Now Mel brings Kermit back to us.  At the request of Kermit's editor, Mel took up Kermit's unfinished manuscript.  There was much to complete, but the book is now in print, and will surely be an excellent teaching resource.  So we have two things to thank Mel Urofsky for:  another wonderful book, and a chance to remember Kermit Hall.

Here's the book description from the press:
Illuminating a classic case from the turbulent civil rights era of the 1960s, two of America's foremost legal historians--Kermit Hall and Melvin Urofsky--provide a compact and highly readable updating of one of the most memorable decisions in the Supreme Court's canon.

When the New York Times published an advertisement that accused Alabama officials of willfully abusing civil rights activists, Montgomery police commissioner Lester Sullivan filed suit for defamation. Alabama courts, citing factual errors in the ad, ordered the Times to pay half a million dollars in damages. The Times appealed to the Supreme Court, which had previously deferred to the states on libel issues. The justices, recognizing that Alabama's application of libel law threatened both the nation's free press and equal rights for African Americans, unanimously sided with the Times.

As memorably recounted twenty years ago in Anthony Lewis's Make No Law, the 1964 decision profoundly altered defamation law, which the Court declared must not hinder debate on public issues even if it includes "vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." The decision also introduced a new First Amendment test: a public official cannot recover damages for libel unless he proves that the statement was made with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false.

Hall and Urofsky, however, place a new emphasis on this iconic case. Whereas Lewis's book championed freedom of the press, the authors here provide a stronger focus on civil rights and southern legal culture. They convey to readers the urgency of the civil rights movement and the vitriolic anger it inspired in the Deep South. Their insights place this landmark case within a new and enlightening frame.
And the blurbs:
"By connecting what most commentators have seen as a controversial freedom of press case to the contentious civil rights movement that produced it, Hall and Urofsky have provided new insights into both legal and political history. An excellent and accessible book about an important moment in American history."--Steven F. Lawson, author of Civil Rights Crossroads: Nation, Community, and the Black Freedom Movement
"When the court declared that `debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,' it said something profound, and this account properly focuses on that extraordinary finding. . . . A remarkably timely book."--Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties: Years of Hope, Years of Rage