Famed First Amendment scholar Leonard W. Levy dies

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Leonard Williams Levy, noted educator and American constitutional historian, died Aug. 24. His death, previously unreported, was confirmed by his friend and co-author, UCLA Law emeritus professor Kenneth L. Karst. Levy died at his home in Ashland, Ore.

Born in Toronto in 1923, Levy studied at the University of Michigan and Columbia University where he received a Ph.D. He was the Earl Warren Professor of American Constitutional History at Brandeis University (1951-1970), the Andrew W. Mellon All-Claremont Professor of Humanities and History at Claremont Graduate School (1970-1990), and then Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Southern Oregon State College.

Professor Levy is best known for three books — Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History (1960), Emergence of a Free Press (1985) and Origins of the Fifth Amendment: The Right Against Self-Incrimination (1968, reprinted with new preface in 1999). Origins won a Pulitzer Prize in 1969.

Legacy of Suppression was commissioned by Robert Maynard Hutchins and the Fund for the Republic as a pamphlet; it was a revisionist interpretation of the speech and press clauses of the First Amendment. Levy argued, among other things, that freedom of the press as understood by the Framers meant merely the absence of prior restraints. Objecting to Levy’s findings, Hutchins refused to print the work.

Years later, Levy noted that he published Legacy “to spite Hutchins and the Fund.” In his Nov. 13, 1960, New York Times review of Legacy, historian Henry Steele Commager portrayed it as a work rivaling Zechariah Chafee’s Free Speech in the United States (1941) and James Smith’s Freedom’s Fetters (1956); he viewed it as one of the “indispensable contributions to the history of American freedom.” But that view was challenged by, among others, Justice Hugo Black, who read the book with “unusual care” and in a long letter to Edmund Cahn wrote that Legacy was “one of the most devastating blows ever directed against civil liberty in America.” Nonetheless, Justice William Brennan cited the book favorably in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), referring to the book’s lesson concerning the “central meaning of the First Amendment.”

In 1985, Levy revised and greatly expanded Legacy and re-titled it Emergence of a Free Press. In it he conceded that he “was wrong in asserting that the American experience with freedom of political expression was as slight as the conceptual and legal understanding was narrow.” Though he abandoned his arguments concerning the Framers, freedom of the press and prior restraints, he held to his “principal thesis” that “it was the intent of the … Framers of the First Amendment to abolish the common law of seditious libel.”

Levy’s last major work was the 690-page work Blasphemy: Verbal Offense against the Sacred, from Moses to Salman Rushdie, published in 1995 (originally 1993's Treason against God.). The book tracked and examined the varied meanings of blasphemy throughout Western law.

Leonard Levy authored some 38 books on American and British constitutional history. His historical writings on the Constitution have been quoted or mentioned in 27 Supreme Court cases. He was the main editor with Kenneth Karst of the four-volume Encyclopedia of the American Constitution (1986) and co-editor with Louis Fisher of the four-volume Encyclopedia of the American Presidency (1994).

Leonard Levy — whom this writer met and befriended many years ago — was a giant in his field, though he was a controversial figure. He was, nonetheless, one of the great constitutional scholars of our time.