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Brooklyn Supreme Court celebrates First Amendment during Law Day

May 9, 2019 Rob Abruzzese
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Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Lawrence Knipel explained that when he first heard the theme for this year’s Law Day he was surprised. After all, how could “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society” be a controversial topic, he thought.

The more Justice Knipel thought about it, though, the more he came to realize how complicated a topic it could be. That’s why he came with a warning to his judges during the Brooklyn Supreme Court’s Law Day celebration on Wednesday — it’s important for them to be vigilant in protecting such an important right.

“When the constitution was first written, it was so uncontroversial that there was no debate,” said Justice Knipel, administrative judge for Brooklyn’s Supreme Court, Civil Term. “But in 1798, Congress, then composed of many of the same people who drafted and pressed for adoption of the amendment itself, passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, which basically criminalized oral and written statements critical of the government.”

Hon. Lawrence Knipel, administrative judge for the Brooklyn Supreme Court, Civil Term.

Wednesday’s Law Day celebration took place in front of about 50 court employees, attorneys and jurors at the Supreme Court, Criminal Term. Hosted by the court’s own Administrative Judge, Hon. Matthew D’Emic, the other speakers also included David Chidekel, president of the Brooklyn Bar Association; Hon. Zachary W. Carter, former judge and current Corporation Counsel of New York City; and Hon. Rowan D. Wilson, Associate Judge of the Court of Appeals.

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Hon. Danny Chun sang the national anthem and the former President and Dean of Brooklyn Law School, Nicholas Allard, was the keynote speaker.

“In 1958, President Eisenhower established Law Day as a day dedicated to the principals of government under law,” said Justice D’Emic. “This year’s theme ‘Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society’ enables us to reflect on the ways that freedom of speech and freedom of the press provide foundations for our free society.”

Hon. Zachary W. Carter, former judge and current corporation counsel of New York City.

None of the speakers mentioned President Donald Trump by name, but it was clear in a few of the speeches that they’re glad that this year’s theme provided an opportunity to take a stand against some of the claims that he has made, including his attack on both the judiciary and the press.

“Thank you for sparing us a reading of this year’s presidential proclamation,” Carter said. “I’m part of the family of judges because I sat in the Criminal Court as a judge and I was U.S. magistrate judge. Sitting by and having to listen to the judiciary insulted because it doesn’t always rule his way is not something that I can easily bear.

“I’m also grateful for the theme that focuses on the First Amendment because there has never been a time where it has been under assault like it has the past couple of years.”

Hon. Rowan D. Wilson, associate judge of the Court of Appeals.

In his keynote speech, Allard explained that while the First Amendment may be inconvenient at times, its effect is often for the greater good. He then praised Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks, who in a separate event had outlined a lot of the bad press the court system has gotten, but then explained how it ultimately made the courts better.

“Freedom of the Press has served the United States well and in fact is a primary reason our democracy has lasted longer than any other in history,” Allard said. “Ignorance, denial of the truth, the failure to act on the truth when to do so is inconvenient, impolitic, or in the public interest but against self-interest — these are the real enemies of the people.”

Justice Wilson discussed a bit of the history of Law Day, and noted that it started in the ‘50s in response to an annual parade of missiles that occurred in the Soviet Union on May 1. He explained how former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis had a large role in shaping our current understanding of the First Amendment as well.

From left: Daniel Allesandrino, Hon. Danny Chun and Hon. Matthew D’Emic, administrative judge of the Brooklyn Supreme Court, Criminal Term.

“Today’s new media of soundbites, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has been exploited rather successfully by some, not limited to Russians,” Justice Wilson said. “I believe Justice Brandeis would advise us that the new media is fundamentally like the old in at least one respect — the antidote for harmful speech is more speech, and the successful exploitation of the new media by people of good will is there for the taking.”

Chidekel explained some of the history behind the fight for the First Amendment, and proudly proclaimed that New York, and Brooklyn, have always been at the forefront of protecting it.

“New York is a traditional state for fighting for free speech,” Chidekel said. “When did it all start? New York in 1735 with John Peter Zenger. It continued in 1787 with the Federalist Papers, one of the most monumental events in free speech. On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That’s important because it reflects the famous decision in 1961, Garner v. Louisiana, that said freedom of expression and freedom of speech are not only verbal. Brooklyn was ahead of his time.”

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