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Anthony Lewis

William J. Brennan, Jr. Defense of Freedom Award Recipient, 2011

Author of "Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment"
Former New York Times Columnist and Supreme Court Reporter
Two-Time Pulitzer Winner


Anthony Lewis has been passionately dedicated to the values of free speech and justice throughout his long career as a journalist, op-ed columnist, author and professor.  He has illuminated the complexities of the First Amendment for journalists, lawyers and students with his thoughtful writings and teachings on the Constitution and the press, most famously in his extraordinary exploration of the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan in his book “Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment.”

His impressive career includes more than 40 years at The New York Times as a Supreme Court reporter, bureau chief and op-ed columnist.  He is the author of four acclaimed books: “Gideon’s Trumpet,” about the Supreme Court’s decision recognizing the right to counsel for criminal defendants; “Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution,” about race relations in America; “Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment;” and most recently, “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.”

As a legal scholar, Mr. Lewis has taught a generation of students about the Constitution and the press at Harvard Law School, Columbia Journalism School and universities throughout the country.

His long and illustrious career has had an expansive impact on the free speech debate in this country and beyond.


Mr. Lewis’s journalism career began in 1948 as a deskman in the Sunday Department of The New York Times.  He then became a reporter for The Washington Daily News from 1952 to 1955.  Mr. Lewis’s exceptional journalistic voice was recognized early in his career when in 1955 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles in The Washington Daily News on the ordeal of Navy employee Abraham Chasanow, who was wrongly fired based on anonymous allegations that he was a radical.

Mr. Lewis’s articles exposed the senselessness of the government’s action.  Focusing on one individual’s plight, Mr. Lewis shed light on the Kafkaesque abuses of the McCarthy era.  The Navy officially admitted that it had made a mistake and reinstated Chasanow.  The Pulitzer Prize Board found that Mr. Lewis’s articles were “directly responsible” for clearing Chasanow and that Mr. Lewis championed his case “in the best tradition of American journalism.”

The articles illustrated what would become a recurring theme throughout his career: exposing abuses of power and vindicating citizens’ rights against the dangerous tyranny of government secrecy.

In 1955, Mr. Lewis rejoined The New York Times as a reporter in the Washington Bureau.  In 1957, he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard Law School.  Upon his return to Washington, he covered the Supreme Court, the Justice Department and other legal matters, notably including the government’s handling of the Civil Rights movement.

He would remain at The New York Times for the next 43 years, and would serve as its Supreme Court reporter, London Bureau Chief, and op-ed columnist before his retirement from The New York Times in 2001.


Mr. Lewis’s body of work as a Supreme Court reporter exemplifies his commitment to informing people about the value of their individual liberties.  His coverage of Supreme Court decisions superbly explained and clarified the judicial reasoning and allowed Americans to understand the practical implications of the law on their lives.

It was for his outstanding coverage of the Supreme Court for The New York Times that Lewis won his second Pulitzer Prize in 1963.  He was specifically commended for his distinguished reporting of the reapportionment case, Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186 (1962), which held that federal courts had jurisdiction over questions of legislative apportionment.  The Supreme Court ruled that every state legislature in the country had to have districts based on equal population, under the “one person, one vote” standard.  Lewis emphasized the historic democratic consequences of the case, which essentially altered the nature of political representation in America and reshaped the national political map by opening the doors of the federal courts to legal attacks on the apportionment of seats in legislatures.1


Mr. Lewis has consistently advocated the citizen’s right of access to official institutions and information as a check on the government’s power.2  His 1980 Supreme Court Review article, “A Public Right to Know about Public Institutions: The First Amendment as Sword,” lauded the decision in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, 448 U.S. 555 (1980), for holding that the Speech and Press Clauses of the First Amendment give the public the right of access to criminal trials.  He highlighted the significance of the Richmond decision for the general public in his New York Times article, “A Right to Be Informed,”3 which analyzed the critical role of the press in modern society.  He explained that public access to criminal trials is paramount because:

We are not in an age, any longer, when the test of the First Amendment is the freedom of the street corner orator.  We live in a complex society, with a Government of immense powers that a democratic republic can hope to control only if it is able to learn the facts in some depth and detail.  Accountability, the principle at the heart of the American Constitution, more than ever requires information.

Mr. Lewis believes that press access to such government proceedings helps maintain a healthy democracy by disseminating essential information to the public.

Mr. Lewis recognizes that access is important for another reason as well.  He believes that the press is responsible for holding the government accountable for its actions.  He has often expressed in his writings that, “The press, with all its defects of haste and short attention span, is often the only defense against the abuse of power.”4  It is for that reason that he has opposed certain provisions of the Espionage Act, finding the implications in giving the government the ability to prosecute journalists especially dangerous to the press and ultimately harmful to society.

In his books, “Make No Law” and “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate,” Mr. Lewis wrote how provisions of the Espionage Act have historically been used to abuse citizens’ free speech rights.  After the United States entered World War I in 1917, “[t]he most innocuous criticism of government policy or discussions of pacifism were found to be violations of the Espionage Act.  Judges told juries to convict if they found that a defendant’s words were ‘disloyal’.”5  He describes the Espionage Act as “incredibly vague” and has warned of the potential danger of the government again using the Espionage Act to silence dissent and prosecute the press.6  He feels that the chilling effect of convicting a member of the press under an amorphous definition of national defense would undermine the principles of the First Amendment.

Mr. Lewis also believes it is imperative that the press be perpetually vigilant for government secrecy, especially in wartime, when national security is used interchangeably with government secrecy.  In his words, “Secrecy is a red flag to journalists, rightly so.  Governments use it to hide corruption and incompetence, and to increase their unaccountable power.”7  In 2001, Lewis presciently criticized the Bush Administration’s use of secret military tribunals and prisons in a series of op-ed articles, remarkable for recognizing government abuses at their outset.8

In 2006, Mr. Lewis expressed his opinion that the press had not been courageous or aggressive enough in its coverage of the government’s reasons for going into the Iraq War and the lack of information to the public had proved costly.9  He has high expectations for the press, keenly aware of the role the press plays.  Lewis holds himself to the same values, and he was recognized as embodying the benchmark of journalism when he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001, for having “set the highest standard of journalistic ethics and excellence.”

Mr. Lewis’s journalism often concerns the redemption of a citizen’s civil rights against abuses of unchecked power.  His work focuses upon the protection of the powerless against overweening authority, whether that be in the form of a despotic government or a propagandist press aligned with it.  Thus, despite his fervent belief in the freedom of speech and press, Mr. Lewis resists unchecked power and First Amendment absolutism.  He recognizes select situations when the press can be aligned with or controlled by the very powers it is supposed to be monitoring.  For example, Mr. Lewis has written about the South African case of Manas Buthelezi, an African churchman critical of the apartheid government, who became the target of a magazine’s smear campaign that was secretly directed by the government.10  He believes the interest of free expression must sometimes yield to the individual’s interest in reputation and privacy.


In addition to his journalism, Lewis has shared his vast knowledge and experience through his books.  He is the author of four exceptional books: “Gideon’s Trumpet,” “Portrait of a Decade,” “Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment” and “Freedom for the Thought That We Hate: A Biography of the First Amendment.”  Published in 1964, “Gideon’s Trumpet” remains a seminal text that influenced a generation and instilled in them a deep belief and faith in the American legal system.  It examines the crucial significance of the Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), which gave impoverished criminal defendants the right to an attorney.  “Portrait of a Decade: The Second American Revolution” was also published in 1964, and it chronicles the evolution of American race relations.

“Make No Law” and “Freedom For the Thought That We Hate” may be the two books which best display Lewis’s nuanced understanding of the First Amendment and his belief in the necessity of freedom of speech for a free society.  Published in 1991, “Make No Law” analyzes the legal reasoning and far-reaching implications of the landmark Supreme Court decision, New York Times v. Sullivan.  Mr. Lewis cogently explains the socio-historical context of the case and how it changed the course of First Amendment analysis and litigation in America.  The thoroughly engaging and absorbing account of the case has made the complexities of the case accessible to the general public, not to mention students of journalism, and greatly enhanced discussion about the First Amendment.

“Freedom for the Thought That We Hate,” published in 2006, expands upon and surveys the unique history and development of the First Amendment in America.  The “short history of the [First] Amendment that is always illuminating and sometimes rollicking”11 explores various free speech controversies in Lewis’s typical engaging manner. 


Mr. Lewis has continued to educate the public about the significance of freedom of the press and the rule of law by sharing his wisdom with students of journalism, law and government.  For 15 years, Lewis was a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, where he taught a course on The Constitution and the Press.  He was also the Visiting Lombard Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government for the spring semester of 2002, where he taught a course titled “The First Amendment: Legal Doctrine and Political Practice.”  From 1983 to 2009, Lewis held the James Madison Visiting Professorship of First Amendment Issues at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he taught a required course that was intended to impart the necessary balance between theoretical and practical knowledge of the First Amendment for the classroom and the newsroom.  He has also given lectures at numerous other universities, among them, the Universities of Hawai’i, Oregon and Minnesota.


Throughout his celebrated career, Anthony Lewis’s deep commitment to the values of freedom of speech, individual rights and the rule of law has been evident in every single one of his works.  Mr. Lewis once said, “[N]o part of our Constitution, least of all the First Amendment, is a mere legalism.  It is, as has been said, a mood as much as a command.  Our judges call us back to the spirit of the First Amendment from time to time, but we should not need the judges to know that in this country we may, we must, let our minds be bold.”12  When he uttered those words during his McGill Lecture in 1981, Lewis was cautioning against idle acceptance of free speech rights.  He certainly has refused to stay meek and has always shared his bold mind with the public, enriching the discussion about the First Amendment.

Tonight, we honor Anthony Lewis for his lifetime of invaluable contributions supporting freedom of speech and the press.

See also Anthony Lewis, Historic Change in the Supreme Court, N.Y. TIMES, June 17, 1962.
     3 Anthony Lewis, A Right to Be Informed, N.Y. TIMES, July 3, 1980, at A19.
     4 Anthony Lewis, Are Journalists Privileged, 729 CARDOZO L. REV. 1353, 1354 (2006).  See also Anthony Lewis, Journalistic Freedom and Privacy: A Case of Relative Compatibility, 43 SUFFOLK U. L. REV. 79, 88 (2009).
     6 FIRST AMENDMENT CENTER, supra note 2.
     7 Anthony Lewis, Journalistic Freedom and Privacy: A Case of Relative Compatibility, 43 SUFFOLK U. L. REV. 79, 87 (2009).
     8 See Anthony Lewis, Abroad at Home; Right and Wrong, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 21, 2001; Anthony Lewis, Abroad at Home; Wake Up America, N.Y. TIMES, Nov. 30, 2001; Anthony Lewis, Abroad at Home; It Can Happen Here, N.Y. TIMES, Dec. 1, 2001; Anthony Lewis, Abroad at Home; Dust in Our Eyes, N.Y. TIMES, Dec. 4, 2001; Anthony Lewis, Abroad at Home; Hail and Farewell, N.Y. TIMES, Dec. 15, 2001; Anthony Lewis, Captives and the Law, N.Y. TIMES, Jan. 26, 2002; Anthony Lewis, Taking Our Liberties, N.Y. TIMES,  March 9, 2002; Anthony Lewis, Bush and Iraq, THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, Oct. 10, 2002.
     9 FIRST AMENDMENT CENTER, supra note 2 at 22.  See also Anthony Lewis, Challenges to Press Freedom: An Online Discussion, COMMITTEE TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS, 2006 at 15.
     10 Anthony Lewis, Are Journalists Privileged, 729 CARDOZO L. REV. 1353, 1353 (2006).
     11 Jonathan Kirsch, America’s Core Value, L.A. TIMES, Jan. 20, 2008.
     12 Anthony Lewis, The McGill Lecture at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication (1981).

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