Monday, June 11, 2012

Freedom of Speech [apropos]
Burton Joseph, a civil liberties lawyer in Chicago who took on tough First Amendment causes, notably the right of Nazis to march through Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish population, died on Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 79 and maintained his primary residence in Evanston, Ill.

The cause was brain cancer, his daughter Jody said.

Mr. Joseph developed an appetite for free-speech cases in the early 1960s while arguing the right of a client in Lake County, Ill., to sell Henry Miller’s novel “Tropic of Cancer.” After a series of cases in state courts, the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that the book could not be banned.

“I got hooked,” Mr. Joseph once told an interviewer. “I became a bleeding-heart, knee-jerk First Amendment lawyer. And I’ve never been sorry.”

While a partner in the Chicago law firm that became Joseph, Lichtenstein & Levinson, he did pro bono work for the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. At the time, the branch was small, but in the 45 years he spent working with it and serving on its board, it developed into a large office with 25 employees.

Mr. Joseph defended demonstrators arrested at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, and in the late 1970s he pressed the A.C.L.U. to represent the National Socialist Party of America, an offshoot of the American Nazi Party, in its legal battle to obtain permission to march in Skokie. David Goldberger handled the case for the A.C.L.U.

A ruling by the Supreme Court in 1978 cleared the final legal obstacle, but the group decided to march in Chicago instead.

In 1997 Mr. Joseph was counsel for the American Library Association in a suit brought by nearly 20 organizations against Attorney General Janet Reno and the Communications Decency Act. The act, passed by Congress a year earlier, made it a crime to display material on the Internet deemed “indecent” or “patently offensive” to children under 18. The Supreme Court overturned two provisions of the act, ruling that it violated the First Amendment by not allowing parents to decide what material was acceptable for their children; the term “patently offensive,” the court said, had no legal definition.