Remembering civil rights legal pioneer, friend of the First Amendment

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Many will mourn this week’s passing of Robert L. Carter, a former U.S. district judge in New York and a pioneering attorney who fought for the cause of racial equality during his long career. Carter, 94, also made great contributions to First Amendment jurisprudence, arguing numerous cases before the U.S. Supreme Court while an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Carter cared deeply about the First Amendment and saw it as an essential tool for the advancement of equality. Carter noted in his book, A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights, that he wrote his thesis at Columbia Law School (where he earned a master’s in law in 1941) “on the essentiality of the First Amendment for the preservation of a democratic society.”

Carter later used this thesis when developing arguments before the Supreme Court, including NAACP v. Alabama (1958), in which he successfully argued that the First Amendment protected the free-association rights of rank-and-file members of the NAACP from having their names disclosed to Alabama state officials bent on using that information for negative purposes.

Carter’s thesis became his life’s work as an attorney. Authors Ronald K.L. Collins and Sam Chaltain write in their excellent work We Must Not Be Afraid To Be Free: “In the eight First Amendment cases he argued before the Court between 1958 and 1965, Robert Carter had constructed a bridge between the liberty principle of the First Amendment and the equality principle of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The First Amendment served as an essential tool during the civil rights movement. The late, great Robert L. Carter should be praised and remembered for his mastery in using that tool to carve out a better society.

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