Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly

The following review appeared in the December 22, 2014, issue of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (p. 20):


By Peter Elikann

At first glance, there might be a rush to judgment that this collection of essays by Bill Newman, storied civil rights lawyer and head of the western regional office of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, might not focus solely on the law and justice.

While Newman – whose column appeared for decades in the Daily Hampshire Gazette – writes of his immersion on the front lines of “the agonies of our times" as he engages in such serious legal issues as the Patriot Act, the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the anti-war movement and the death penalty, also included in the collection are commentaries on parenting, his childhood, sports, pets and nature.

But a presumption that this work strays from the law and justice could not be more wrong.  On the contrary, Newman’s life and world view exhibit a consistent theme throughout: that the political is personal and that justice and fairness are worth fighting for, whether it be in the larger venues of the courts or in the seemingly smaller ones such as one’s personal relationships.

For example, he tells of his activism triggered by outrage at the killing of four college students by the Ohio National Guard at a campus protest at Kent State University in 1970.  Hence, the title of the book, “When the War Came Home.”

On the other hand, he also writes with passion about outrages on a local micro-scale.  When he and his wife learn that six benches on which they frequently sit in downtown Northampton were removed as an apparent effort to discourage the homeless and other alleged undesirables from congregating there, he doesn’t just lament; he swings into action, organizes, cites the law, and the benches are returned within a week.

Newman documents what he refers to as “Benchgate” in a charming prose style riddled with wit: “Per executive order, those six benches, alleged to be the worst of the worst, were removed without notice or a hearing and secretly transported to a secure government facility where, behind high fences and multiple locks, they had been indefinitely detained.”

Even when he writes about deceptively unserious topics such as legendary baseball player Mickey Mantle in the 1950s and 1960s, he can’t help but make reference in that same column to other events during that era such as the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the alleged weakness of the U.S. Supreme Court decision against segregation in  Brown v. Board of Education, and the Kerner Commission report investigating race riots and other civil disorder.  To Newman, everything apparently is seen through the prism of justice.

Even if the reader doesn’t share Newman’s civil libertarian viewpoint, his fervor and appetite for fighting for his belief in fundamental fairness are, nonetheless, contagious.  He looks at the legal work he has done for progressive movements as not simply some stodgy stiff exercise, but as an entity that calls for creativity.  He quotes iconic political activist Emma Goldman’s statement that “[i]f I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

Along those lines, he once defended a clown names JJ Jester who ran for president of the United States with the campaign slogan, “He tells the naked truth,” while wearing a 6-foot-tall phallic costume.  After JJ Jester was acquitted of criminal lewdness, Newman concluded that “people who fight to protect freedom of speech come in many guises.”

Although his stories are peppered with a disarming humor and a strong sense of irony, his terrible outrage at the gravity of injustice he faces comes through especially when he opposes hypocrisy.

For example, he represents the food service and housekeeping staff at Smith College in Northampton, an institution with an endowment of a billion and a half dollars that espouses high-minded talk of equality for women.  However, a woman who cooks or cleans there for 30 years will wind up with a pension that pays an astonishing maximum of $135 a month.

What distinguishes and elevates Newman’s writing is that he can provide analysis on the most serious rights issues, from prison reform to the earliest cases on child custody rights for the LGBT community, and yet presents the human side of the story not just of those directly affected, but of the toll suffered by the lawyer himself engaged in the struggle.

In one instance, he travels to Georgia to meet Kenny Blanks, his first death penalty client, and appears surprised to learn that, despite all his apparent greater troubles, Blanks is particularly happy about something seemingly small:  He hasn’t had a visitor in two years.

After the meeting with Blanks, Newman finds himself asking his veteran southern co-counsel a question that has been gnawing at him: “If we lose, do we go to his execution?”  He learns from the more experienced pro that every volunteer lawyer asks that very same question.  Fortunately, in this particular case, he does not lose and is able to find meaning in his struggle because, “[a]fter all, how often do you have a chance to help save a life?”

In another passage, Newman sensitively observes a Vietnam veteran, whose industrial union in Westfield he represents, tense up and apprehensively look for a safe place as a helicopter whirs overhead – even though the war ended decades earlier.

Newman’s approach to the law is frequently a practical results-oriented one.  In one telling episode, he is called in the middle of the night to meet with student protestors occupying a building at UMass/Amherst who are about to be arrested.  The school administration had just offered the protestors complete legal and academic amnesty and remarkably granted many, but not all, of their demands if they left.

The youthful idealists view anything short of having 100 percent of their numerous demands met as an unacceptable compromise and are ready to be arrested.  After hours of talks, Newman helps convince them that “the best should not become the enemy of the good,” and if they do not accept the offer, they will get nothing and be tied up in criminal courts rather than focusing their energies on implementing their hard-won accord.

Another teachable moment is Newman’s account of what happens every December as the floodgates open and every civil liberties office in the country is inundated by frantic calls for advice about religious displays on public property.  He takes us by the hand through the myriad of often contradictory cases that attempt to balance the First Amendment’s establishment clause against the free exercise clause.  Some courts have found that, if the secular aspects of Christmas decorations (i.e., Santa Claus) outweigh the religious angle (i.e., a nativity scene), it can pass muster.  He cites a comment from another ACLU lawyer that, “[i]f Rudolph and Frosty are bigger than the Christ child, I generally let it go.”

“When the War Came Home” is a towering achievement depicting a public man’s consistent core beliefs in fairness and justice that, over the decades, he selflessly lives and practices on both the grandest and tiniest of scales and, despite the gravity of these critical issues, occasionally does so with some sense of humor and joy.

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