ACLUM Bill of Rights Dinner - May 31, 2016

Harvey Silverglate’s Roger Baldwin Award remarks:

I want to thank everyone who has made this moment possible – my former and current law partners and associates, my ACLUM brothers and sisters over the decades, my family, especially my photographer-wife Elsa Dorfman – for their extreme tolerance of my sometimes difficult schedule and all-consuming projects. And I even wish to acknowledge the important role played by the many totalitarians, authoritarians, prosecutors, judges (only the bad ones, of course, with present company excepted), and college administrators, without whom I might have ended up with little useful work to do.

I say this only partially in jest. There is a significant amount of truth to this list of my antagonists. I know that when I began my law practice – with partner Norman Zalkind, then continued with partners Nancy Gertner and Tom Shapiro, and then through the various permutations and combinations until the present time when I find myself back in law practice with Norman and his partners and associates – my assumption was that there is such a thing as progress, that the nation, indeed the human race, was on a trajectory toward expanded liberty, decency and fairness. Somewhere along the way I seem to have woken up. I now understand why my – our – predecessors in this never-ending fight warned us that liberty is never finally won. Each generation picks up the baton and runs with it, anew.

It’s been quite a battle so far. (This is what I get, I suppose, for having decided to go to law rather than medical school.) And as we look around – as those of my generation pick up the morning newspaper every day, and younger generations go on-line for their daily dose of tragedy, outrage, and disaster – we see how much more there is to do. Still, we can rejoice in the victories for freedom and decency that we’ve managed to win, but that we have to defend every day.

As someone concerned about free speech, due process, and fairness not only in the “real world,” but also on college campuses, I can report – in case anyone is unaware of it – that we face a serious challenge. Unless we restore free speech, free thought and procedural fairness in academia, we will suffer the consequences in future generations. Students are disturbingly prone to obey student life bureaucrats, rather than challenge some of the edicts that are inappropriate for liberal arts educational institutions. 

This is a struggle to which I’m very much committed, as are some other members of our organization – my friends Nancy Gertner and Wendy Kaminer and Alan Dershowitz come readily to mind.

I spend the other half of my time as a criminal defense lawyer, working within a system that I find equally troubling. Despite the occasional victories for liberty and fairness in the criminal justice system, we still face a nation with far more of its citizens and non-citizen residents stored in human warehouses – our disgraceful prisons – than any society should tolerate, a situation made especially bad because an uncomfortably large number of them are either innocent, or are guilty of committing acts that should not reasonably be designated as crimes, or are of the wrong race. Bryan Stevenson came here today to put more flesh onto this skeleton that I describe. I urge everyone here to read his book, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption.

I understand why Bryan chose to put his thoughts and his stories into a book format, despite warnings that people don’t read books anymore (a cynical claim that I really don’t believe, by the way). Sometimes a social or legal phenomenon has to be spelled out in sufficient detail to grab the minds and consciences of the nation. While on occasion a magnificent speech has this effect – think: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, which I witnessed him deliver during the 1963 “March on Washington,” or Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for which I was not present – for most of us who work in the justice and liberty arenas, books are an effective medium for enlisting public support.

On two occasions I decided to put my thoughts into a book format – The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (1998), and Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent (2009). The problems I wrote about in those books are still with us today, the campus situation far worse than when I wrote in 1998, the criminal justice system arguably as bad. And so, we fight on, and we hope for occasional victories, even if some are subject to periodic reversals. We work toward a goal of two steps forward and only one step back.

In conducting these battles, I have been privileged to have my ACLUM cohorts at my side or watching my back. I had the honor of being on the Board for some decades, and even serving as Board President for a term. During my Board presidency, I had the good sense to take a half-year sabbatical from my law practice, during which I spent more time caring for my young son Isaac, and also wandered from time to time into the ACLUM office (then known by the acronym CLUM), and also took a turn at teaching a course at the Harvard Law School and, even more interestingly, partnered with a teacher at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School, long-time ACLUM member Larry Aaronson, to give weekly classes on the Bill of Rights to high schoolers in Larry’s civics class.

At Rindge & Latin, I learned a profound lesson from those high school students. They were only moderately attentive during my First Amendment lectures, not to mention the segment on Separation of Powers. But they came alive – hands shot up incessantly, with some students nearly jumping out of their chairs – when I got to search-and-seizure, and stop-and-frisk. Why? Because nearly every student in the class had one or more experiences being stopped, frisked, even searched, and sometimes hassled by the police for the suspicious activity of walking on the street. And as several of these students made clear to me, “Walking while Black” made a kid especially vulnerable.  Indeed, there is no substitute for actual experience to produce a civil libertarian!

We need to make our fellow citizens understand that these principles are not abstractions, but that they affect real people, including, under the right circumstances, all of us. We fight for liberty in some substantial measure because, ultimately, the freedom at risk is ours.

I thank all of you for coming here this evening, and for fighting for my liberty, your liberty, our liberty.