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One On 1 Profile: Top Attorney Floyd Abrams Has Defended Free Speech For More Than 40 Years

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The First Amendment continues to elicit heated public debates across the country, and an attorney often found in the middle of those debates is a native New Yorker, Floyd Abrams. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.

Floyd Abrams is an ardent defender of free speech and a passionate proponent of the First Amendment. Except for the time that his 12-year-old daughter, now a federal judge, told her dad that she and some friends were going to an R-rated movie.

"I said to her on the phone, 'You can't go to that,' and she said, 'You? You say all the time all these things about freedom of speech,'" Abrams says. "I don't know what I really said at the time but I know I was thinking, 'Enough already with this free speech stuff.'"

But that was a rare exception.

"The First Amendment in particular, the Bill of Rights in general is something that still makes the world envious of us," Abrams says.

It even occasionally makes him a rock star, like at a reading before the group People For The American Way.

Abrams has long written about the First Amendment, articles contained in a new book, "Friend Of The Court: On The Front Lines With The First Amendment." He is sought after to speak on the topic, from Google to the United Nations.

He told his audience at Google, "The press and the government have often been in conflict," and reflected before the UN, "People in a democratic society ought to be allowed to hate as well as love."

But he is also realistic.

"It's so counterintuitive. It is so hard for people to really want to protect speech that they think is bad speech," Abrams says.

In 1971, Abrams was a relatively unknown attorney when he was asked to represent the New York Times. It became his most famous case: The Pentagon Papers. The Times published government documents about the Vietnam War, documents given to the Times by former military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.

Ellsberg said at the time, "I released these studies because I believe the concealment of this information for 25 years has now led to the death of 50,000 Americans."

The Nixon administration went to court to try to stop the Times. The U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times Co. v. United States, was front-page news, though some of Abrams' concerns at the time were actually quite pedestrian.

"To know all the things that I thought I should know, like where was the courtroom I was going to?" Abrams remembers.

The Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of the Times. Abrams knew it was an historic case, though he was too busy at the time to take it all in.

"Apart from the merits, you don't want to look bad or embarrass yourself or your law firm or your side," Abrams says

The Pentagon Papers case brought Abrams much acclaim. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has brought him much criticism. In 2008, a conservative group wanted to air a documentary criticizing then-leading Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, but was barred from doing so by election laws.

Abrams argued before the Supreme Court that it was an issue of free speech.

At the time he said, "Your honor, I don't think you'd be doing more harm than good in vindicating the First Amendment rights here, which transcend Citizens United."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Citizens United. Many saw the ruling as an opening of the floodgates for corporate money in elections. It was an unpopular ruling for many who otherwise share Abrams' political views.

"There are a lot of people who said, 'How could you? How could you not understand that money corrupts?'" he says. "They say to me, 'What about democracy?' And I say to them, 'How can you say it's democracy to keep people from speaking?'"

The Citizens United case has created a strange bedfellows scenario for Abrams.

"I get congratulated sometimes by people from the pretty far right, on Citizens United, people who I don't sort of hang around with," Abrams says.

Abrams says he did not have a particular zeal for the First Amendment while growing up in Forest Hills, though he was a member of the Forest Hills Young Liberals.

His first awareness came on a trip to Montreal in 1956 as a member of the Cornell debate team.

"They toasted the American Constitution. They said, 'With all its amendments, especially the First," Abrams remembers.

Abrams wasn't even sure he wanted to be a lawyer, even at Yale Law School. But he joined a firm that represented NBC in the 1960s, a time when press freedoms were under fire.

On a trip to India in 1967, a fortune teller predicted that Abrams would do something in his nation's capital to make him famous by the time he was 35.

"The Pentagon Papers case occurred and my sister called and said, 'Do you remember that Indian fortune teller?' The decision in the Pentagon Papers case was June 30 of my 35th year, 10 days before my birthday. So he was pretty good," Abrams says.

In a much publicized case in 1999, Abrams defended the Brooklyn Museum after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani criticized a portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung.

"They thought they were going to cut off the museum from funding and the museum would cave in. And the idea that we sued, we went to court, there was sort of a delicious feeling about the whole thing," he says.

Abrams says he is frustrated by people in the media whom he believes do not appreciate the First Amendment, and in some cases abuse it.

"The fact that you have a right to say something doesn't make it right to say. And that's the reality of the coarseness of so much cable television," Abrams says. "The screaming is, you know, of a sort not to make one doubt the First Amendment, but to doubt whether people are ready for the First Amendment. "

In real life, Abrams represented former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who went to jail because she wouldn't reveal her source. But in the movie "Nothing But The Truth," Abrams played a judge who sends a reporter to jail for the same reason.

"With my mind filled with what so many judges had said to me when I represented so many journalists, I said to her, 'So you think you're above the law?'" he says.

Abrams' belief in the First Amendment is very real, and he sees its effect not just here, but around the world.

"People under oppression as well still look to us and get angry when they think we violate the principles we set forth. You meet young students, as I have, from Malaysia — they cite Jefferson," he says.

Abrams' son Dan is a legal analyst on television. His daughter Ronnie is a federal judge in New York. And on Tuesday, the whole family will be celebrating Floyd Abrams' 77th birthday. ClientIP:, UserAgent: CCBot/2.0 ( Profile: TWCSAMLSP