30 Years of Defending Free Speech

30 years ago today, I received my license to practice law. I devoted the next 3 decades to defending constitutional rights – especially the right to freedom of speech. It has been an honor and a privilege to advocate for clients seeking to express themselves in some way that the government disliked. This practice has included defending protesters, video stores, street performers, raves, website operators, non-profit associations, fortunetellers, artists, and politicians. Each was threatened with censorship based on their protected expression. The First Amendment is the building block of our Constitution, and allows the breathing space for all other rights to exist. I have been fortunate to build a career around my passion, and am thankful for the chance to work with some of the legends in this field.

In the late ’80s, I began representing “mom and pop” video stores that had an 18+ room in the back that rented adult tapes. With the support of my first law firm employer, I began defending these folks against obscenity charges leveled at them by a conservative state attorney who vowed to “clean up” Daytona Beach.  We launched a grass-roots anti-censorship campaign that took hold. All the owners were either acquitted, or the charges were dismissed. The community rejected the government’s efforts to dictate what movies adults could watch in their own homes. Eventually, the state attorney was voted out of office – then re-elected, after a promise not to file any more obscenity charges.

With the advent of the Internet in the early 90’s, and my love of all things tech, I began to focus on representing website operators on First Amendment issues. After grabbing firstamendment.com in the early days of the web, a new practice area was born. I was able to devote the rest of my career to defending online freedom.

First Amendment rights are under attack right now in a way that I have not seen since graduating law school. Political correctness, porn panic, fear of surveillance, sex trafficking hysteria, and social media censorship are threatening bedrock free speech principles. Comedians cannot tell jokes, websites are routinely seized, protesters are being silenced, and lives are destroyed based on a single “inappropriate” comment. Regrettably, the public’s knowledge and appreciation of their First Amendment rights is dwindling. Many are willing to sacrifice free speech rights in order to avoid being offended. These are dangerous times, and many battles loom on the horizon.

Fortunately, there are freedom fighters in every generation. The disputes will be different, but the core principles remain the same. Citizens of a free country are allowed to speak their mind. The government is not permitted to dictate what we read, watch, or create in the realm of free expression. This social contract comes with a price. Sometimes we will be exposed to viewpoints and ideas that are controversial, offensive, or even vile. But living in a constitutional republic requires that we all have a reasonably thick skin. The marketplace of ideas will sort it out. The remedy for bad speech is more speech, not censorship. These are not mere platitudes. Our country sacrificed precious blood and treasure to preserve these freedoms. It is critical that we remember this when considering any sacrifice of free expression or tolerance of government censorship.

I remain thankful for the many years that I have had an opportunity to represent clients who stand for the First Amendment. As we face the future full of threats to free expression, I remain optimistic as our history has proven that freedom is not easily vanquished, and often overcomes great odds.