These three women were active in ACLU First Amendment work during those early years and had an enormously powerful and lasting impact on the law we enjoy today. — Joel Gora (longtime ACLU lawyer)
The news follows, but before it does I want to say a few words about three remarkable women and their roles in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964). They are:
Among others places, you will find their names on the cover of the ACLU amicus brief filed in the Supreme Court on September 9, 1963 in the Sullivan case. Beyond the single sentence they receive in the Supreme Court Reports and in Anthony Lewis’ Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment (1991), the women are virtually unknown players in the First Amendment world. As their respective stories reveal, there is more, much more, to be said about the people in the landmark case and how it came to be so. (BTW: Doris Wechsler — the wife of Herbert Wechsler, the attorney for the Times — helped write the merits brief in Sullivan and is listed on it. She sat in the lawyers’ section when Sullivan was argued in the Supreme Court.)
Recently, I had occasion to say a few words about some of those people in connection with a conference hosted by the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications and the Law School, a conference to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Sullivan. That is how I came upon the ACLU brief filed in Sullivan.
The lead attorneys for the ACLU and the New York Civil Liberties Union were Edward S. Greenbaum (of the famed Greenbaum, Wolff & Ernst firm) and Harriet Pilpel. Melvin L. Wulf, Nanette Dembitz, and Nancy Wechsler were of counsel.
Here is how things began: Mel Wulf, the ACLU attorney, contacted Greenbaum and asked if his firm would file a brief on behalf of ACLU. Greenbaum agreed and, as Wulf recalls, Nancy Wechsler wrote the first draft along with help from Harriet Pilpel. Nanette Dembitz added her own comments, whereafter Wulf did the final read and edit. Greenbaum, the lead attorney, had little or no meaningful input on the brief. The ACLU brief was 37 pages long (plus appendix) and made three basic arguments:
- Alabama’s exercise of its long-arm jurisdiction over the Petitioners violated the First Amendment and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment
- Alabama’s defamation law as applied to criticism of public officials on matters of public concern violated the First Amendment as applied to the states by way of the Fourteenth Amendment
- The trial judge denied the Petitioners due process of law and equal protection of the laws as guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment
Those arguments were teased in a variety of ways — e.g., Alabama’s use of its defamation laws was analogous to the Alien and Sedition acts; there was no reasonable basis for presuming malice or damages; and the trial was so rife with racial prejudice against the Petitioners as to deny them equal protection. More could be said about the brief, but for now let me leave it there so as to return to my sketch of the three women who contributed to the ACLU brief.
→ Harriet Pilpel was an accomplished public-interest advocate with sterling credentials: A graduate of Vassar College and Columbia Law School (1936, second in her class), she went to wotk for the firm of Greenbaum, Wolf & Ernst. Later, she served as general counsel for both the ACLU (1979-1986) and Planned Parenthood. In 1982 she joined the law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During her career, she participated in 27 cases that came before the Supreme Court. She argued on behalf of Planned Parenthood in Poe v. Ulman (1961). She wrote yet other briefs for Planned Parenthood in cases such as Griswod v. Connecticut (1964, with Nancy Wechsler), Roe v. Wade (1973, with Nancy Wechsler), and Carey v. Population Services International (1977). Pilpel was also on the briefs for the Appellees in Harris v. McRae (1980).
In the free speech context, Pilpel was co-counsel with Edward Greenbaum in Farmers Union v. WDAY (1959), a statutory interpretation defamation case.
Harriet was very helpful in supporting my initial run for the ACLU National Board of Directors (a very competitive process), and she also debated Catharine MacKinnon about pornography at an ACLU Biennial Conference. — Nadine Strossen