Posted: Sept. 23, 2016
FIRST AMENDMENT NOW, FIRST AMENDMENT TOMORROW, FIRST AMENDMENT FOREVER
By Celia Cohen
Floyd Abrams might be the most famous First Amendment lawyer alive.
He worked courageously so Ashley Nicole Black, a writer and comedian, could do what she did the other night during a talk she gave at the University of Delaware.
Black works on "Full Frontal with Samantha Bee," the wickedly provocative late-night comedy on TBS, and Black played a video clip from the show about rape kits, of all things, and how legislation in Georgia to make sure the kits were preserved as criminal evidence was blocked by a state senator who is a woman, of all things.
Woman, have you lost your f---ing mind?" Sam Bee says. "Are you just pissed that someone else wrote the law instead of you, or are you in the pocket of Big Rape?"
Circumstances put Ashley Black and Floyd Abrams in juxtaposition on the University of Delaware campus in Newark this week.
Black was there on Wednesday evening as part of a political lecture series called "The Road to the Presidency," and Abrams followed on Thursday afternoon to give the annual remarks on the Constitution and citizenship in commemoration of Jim Soles, the late political science professor who had a profound impact on public life here.
Taken together, Black and Abrams were Free Speech live, a celebration of the First Amendment protections against jail, exile and censorship, if not against Internet trolls and Twitter storms.
Black gets it.
"I don't think the majority of people know what free speech means. Like somebody will tweet at you, and you'll be like, shut up, and they'll be like, hey, don't mess with my free speech. That's not what free speech is," Black said.
"Free speech means the government can't throw you in jail for what you say. I can tell you to shut up as much as I want."
A distinguished First Amendment lawyer could not have said it better, although he could put the ring of the Constitution and the law to it.
"The ultimate First Amendment value is the avoidance of government censorship over speech, without regard, without assessing the value of the particular speech itself," Abrams said.
Abrams' reputation as defender and advocate of the First Amendment goes way back to the Pentagon Papers, when he represented the New York Times in one of the most famous cases of freedom of the press in the nation's history.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1971 the Times, along with the Washington Post, could not be stopped by the Nixon administration from printing the Pentagon's classified history of the Vietnam War that was leaked to the newspapers.
Beyond Abrams' dedication to the First Amendment, he had another reason for being here.
Abrams likes Delaware. After he got his law degree from Yale, he was here for two years from 1961 to 1963 as a law clerk for Paul Leahy, a federal judge appointed by Franklin Roosevelt.
"I almost stayed. I didn't, and look what became of me," Abrams quipped.
The First Amendment is not always easy. As Abrams pointed out, its protections extend to the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests at military funerals with signs reading "God hates fags" and "fags doom nations."
Well, one country's Westboro Baptist is another country's Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rockers who ridiculed Vladimir Putin in a Russian Orthodox church and went to jail for "hooliganism."
Not so here, where politics and ridicule can come together in the free speech of Ashley Black, mischievously posting on Twitter last week, who recently posted on Twitter, "I promise you all this medical rigmarole is just Trump trying to avoid us finding out he's on Cialis. Don't be ashamed DJT!!!"
Black, who has something of an academic bent of her own, teaching college before dropping out of grad school for comedy, noted the origins of comedy go back to the ancient Greeks, who lampooned their gods and politicians.
"Comedy has always been about politicians," Black said.
The Greeks, always the Greeks. It is like Keats and the Grecian urn.
Comedy is politics, politics comedy. That is all anyone needs to know.