Alfred H. Knight, leading libel lawyer, dies

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The legal community lost one of its best with the passing Oct. 10 of Alfred H. Knight, a Nashville-based attorney known for his legal acumen in defending libel cases and his powerful writing on constitutional law. He was 74.

A founding partner of the law firm Willis & Knight, Knight represented The Tennessean and other news outlets in libel and invasion-of-privacy lawsuits.

“Quite clearly during the years he practiced he was widely recognized as Tennessee’s premier First Amendment lawyer and his reputation for free-press advocacy was national,” said John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center and for many years the editor and publisher of The Tennessean.

Seigenthaler praised not only Knight’s intellect but also his humanity in dealing with journalists and editors facing the specter of a libel lawsuit.

“He was always insistent that the journalist understand that he (Knight) was not ever seeking to be the editor, and, as a result of that, many journalists had great confidence in his judgment and his wisdom,” Seigenthaler said.

Many consider Knight one of the best lawyers in state of Tennessee, if not nationally.

“His legal acumen was the best I’ve ever encountered,” said attorney Alan D. Johnson, who worked for and with Knight for 26 years. “I was told by a lot of lawyers and judges that Al Knight was the best appellate lawyer in the state.”

“He was the premier First Amendment lawyer in the state,” agreed Doug Pierce, a Nashville-based attorney at the law firm King & Ballow.

Robb Harvey, who works at the Nashville law firm Waller Landsden, said, “Al was a courteous yet fierce advocate in commercial litigation in which we represented different sides.” He added: “I knew him better as an ally and friend in media litigation over the years.  I felt that he served as a mentor to me and others in my early years of practice.”

Harvey further noted that “All Tennessee citizens have been aided by Al’s efforts to keep our government open and transparent.”

Though Knight worked most of his life practicing law, he also gained acclaim for his lawbooks, most notably The Life of the Law (1996), which examines constitutional-law developments from the time of King Alfred the Great in 7th century England to Rodney King, the Los Angeles motorist infamously beaten by several LAPD officers.

Knight captured the rich history of constitutional law with a keen eye for storytelling.

“I think he was an elegant writer and his style enhanced the narrative,” said Seigenthaler, who hosts a Nashville Public Television show on books, “A Word on Words.” “There was not only a good story, but a good story well told.”

In beautiful language, Knight wrote in The Life of the Law:

“When all that we have known and done is buried beneath the debris of time, what may be remembered most about us is our legal system. Nothing like it has ever been seen before on this planet, so far as we know. It is distinguished, more than anything else, by its breathtaking generosity to the individual.”

Alfred H. Knight’s passion for the law and writing on constitutional law will not be forgotten by those who knew him, practiced with or against him, or read his work.

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