Garrett Epps

Article excerpt

MR. EPPS: Thanks, Paul. Paul's invitation to come to this conference and honor Professor Dershowitz, whom I will call Professor Dershowitz since we've barely met and I never was a student, arrived, luckily, on a Thursday. And I say luckily because on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I say to myself, that Alan Dershowitz, what a brave civil libertarian, terrific scholar, great force in American life. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, that Alan Dershowitz, what a troublemaker, he's completely wrong about everything. On Saturday, I rest.

But really, regardless of what day it arrived, I would have had to say yes because Professor Dershowitz has unwittingly been an inspiration to me throughout his career. I first heard his name when I was editor of the student newspaper at Harvard, and the administration, which was weary of anti-war demonstrations, formed a group called the Committee on Rights and Responsibilities. And I, as a civil libertarian, I think when you have the government forming a group to tell you what your responsibilities are, there is a problem. And there certainly was with this group. They were basically hoping to purge a lot of the real troublemakers. And a lot of my friends fell into that category, by bizarre chance, and they went to the Harvard Law School--to all the great civil libertarians who taught there--and said, we need some help, we've got this--these trials coming up. And a number of these folks came back very disappointed because the eminent civil libertarians had appointments elsewhere or conflicts of interest or something. But they said, but there's this guy, Dershowitz. And so this guy, Dershowitz, came and helped these people with exactly the same sort of zeal he has deployed later in his career, even though he was representing them against his own administration. And I thought, that's kind of cool. And then I got a call from a friend, Felicity Berringer, who was the editor of the Stanford Daily, and she said, "Have you heard of this guy, Dershowitz? He's defending Bruce Franklin," who, of course, was the bet noir of the Stanford administration, the student--not--a faculty radical. And I thought, wow, you know, coast-to-coast troublemaker, this is very impressive.

And later in life, when I was thinking of going to law school after my years as a journalist, I read, The Best Defense, a terrific book if you're considering whether the role of representing people whom some people find morally dubious is worth adopting in life. And it really confirmed me in the idea that, decrepit as I was at the age of thirty-eight, I might be able to contribute something by going to law school and studying law. Much later, when I was a clerk on the 4th Circuit, Professor Dershowitz came through doing what he modeled in the book: defending a very unpopular defendant, still attempting to demonstrate the innocence of Jeffrey MacDonald, the so-called Green Beret Killer whose conviction, under very complex and clouded circumstances, continues to puzzle people as to the--whether justice really was served in that or not. So I thought, in honor of Professor Dershowitz I would write a brilliant essay carrying on, elucidating, bringing forth the unexplored implications of his essay, Shouting Fire, which was written in 1989 in the Atlantic about the famous metaphor Justice Holmes uses, stating that the most stringent protection of free speech would not protect one who falsely shouts fire in a crowded theater thereby causing a panic. And I was going to, you know, build on this foundation something brilliant. I quickly discovered that's not possible because pretty much Professor Dershowitz said everything that rationally can be said in that short essay about what's wrong with this metaphor. And so, I decided still I would do a meditation, probably in a minor key rather than in the key of brilliance, and I found the title to this talk because I spoke just before I came here--I had to speak at the birthday celebration for Thaddeus Stevens in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and I told my host I was on my way to talk about fire in a crowded theater. …