New book recounts heroes, villains in First Amendment law

Saturday, May 14, 2011

First Amendment law has a colorful and captivating history developed through times of war, suppression of minority religions, galvanizing social movements and the abject treatment of prison inmates.

Distinguished civil rights attorney William Bennett Turner examines this history through the stories and ordeals of leading lawsuits and litigants in his new book, Figures of Speech: First Amendment Heroes and Villains (PoliPointPress, 2011).

Among many episodes in the First Amendment annals, Turner examines the plight of Yetta Stromberg, the young communist arrested as a teenager for displaying red flags at a summer camp sponsored by her political party, and her eventual triumph in the Supreme Court in Stromberg v. California (1931). He details the development of free-speech jurisprudence through the prosecutions of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who challenged leafleting laws and other limitations on their door-to-door and open-air proselytizing.

Turner shows that free-speech rights are indivisible, protecting pornographer Larry Flynt and hatemonger Clarence Brandenburg – individuals who also won First Amendment triumphs before the high court in Hustler v. Falwell (1988) and Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).

But the best parts of the book may be Turner’s accounts of his involvement in prisoner litigation – a subject he knows intimately from his years of advocacy culminating in his appearing before the Supreme Court in the 1974 case Procunier v. Martinez, concerning censorship of prisoner mail, and in the 1978 case involving news media access to prisons, Houchins v. KQED.

The book also delves into the case of Dannie Martin, an inmate and talented writer whose articles critical of prison security got him into hot water. And Turner discusses his partly successful lawsuit to establish a First Amendment right of the news media to view executions in California. He shows how Ray Procunier, the former head of the California Department of Corrections who authorized and enforced overly restrictive rules on inmate mail, later became a First Amendment hero in serving as an expert witness for Turner in the case about televising executions.

Though Turner applauds First Amendment victories, he questions the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), in which the Court invalidated campaign-finance legislation in part because of its finding that corporations have the same-level of free-speech rights as persons.

Figures of Speech will make an indelible impact on anyone seeking a deeper understanding and appreciation of First Amendment values and its history.