Blog: an appreciation of C. Edwin Baker, 1947-2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

C. Edwin Baker

The sad news came digitally: “Ed Baker dead,” was the caption in the e-mail subject window. Hard to believe that someone who was so alive with thoughts (controversial, to be sure) is now silent forever.

Though his friends all knew him as “Ed,” his full name was C. Edwin Baker. He was the Nicholas F. Gallicchio Professor of Law and professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Ed’s scholarship on the First Amendment was bold, thoughtful, often original, and always sure to invite hearty discussion concerning the purpose of the First Amendment.

His several books on free speech — Media Concentration and Democracy (2007), Media Markets and Democracy (2002), Advertising and a Democratic Press (1994) and Human Liberty and Freedom of Speech (1989) — viewed freedom through the lens of wresting power from the powerful to empower the powerless. This student of famed Yale First Amendment scholar Thomas Emerson advanced a notion of free-speech freedom in which the speaker’s self-fulfillment, and his or her ability to participate in cultural and political change, were the ideals the First Amendment should safeguard.

True to his individualistic nature, Ed often flew a philosophical flag at some distance from  those of his colleagues and fellow practitioners in the First Amendment arena. He took strong exception, for example, to the classic marketplace-of-ideas theory and likewise objected to libertarian theories that protected commercial speech, corporate expression, and media concentration.

Back in 1977, when he was an assistant professor at the University of Oregon Law School, I asked Ed to join a conference on constitutional law. He contributed an insightful paper, “Scope of the First Amendment” (published in Constitutional Government in America), in which he first charted views that would shape the many books and articles he would publish in the decades following. In the years since that conference, Ed went on to become one of the foremost scholars in his field.

In a 2007 tribute to his friend, Professor Steven Shiffrin, Ed wrote: “The legitimacy of the legal order requires the government to respect an individual’s freedom, and that this required respect for the person as an autonomous agent, who makes her own choices about her expression and her commitments, is the foundational basis of the demand that government not abridge freedom of speech.” (41 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 49, 51).

That respect for the lone individual — the dissident, the picketer, the outsider — was central to his notion of humanity. It grounded his idea of freedom.

At a time when the gulf between various strands of liberal thought is widening on various questions of free speech, Ed’s thoughts are indispensable if robust and enlightened debate on such matters is to continue. And continue it should. By that measure, the quality and spirit of debate, Ed was a modern-day gadfly, albeit one who wore wide-rimmed glasses that allowed him to see things that many of the rest of us could not.

He was, by all measures, a maverick … one of the very few in a world where conformity is the coin of the realm. To Ed Baker: We raise our pickets in your honor!