It was nearly 30 years ago, and I was sitting near the back row of a gigantic, semi-circular lecture hall at the Columbia University law school in New York City.
The two teachers were absolute giants in the journalism business: former CBS News president Fred Friendly and famed New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. The teaching assistant who read our papers was Cynthia McFadden, who is now an anchor on ABC’s “Nightline.”
We were students in the journalism school, but the law school was the only place large enough to fit the entire journalism class of more than 150 students. I was minding my own business when Lewis got up to start his remarks.
Since it was the first day of class, there was no way he could possibly know any of the students. But after Lewis stood up, he looked around the huge room, and said, ”Is there a Mister Keating in the class?”
This was completely out of the blue, and the other students near me started looking over as if to say: “You drew the short straw today.”
I raised my hand, and said, “That’s me.”
Without any further introduction or explanation, Lewis immediately asked me to summarize New York Times v. Sullivan, the famous libel ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. We had been told to read that landmark case in preparation for the first class, but no one told me that the top Supreme Court reporter of his generation would be asking me questions about it.
Luckily, I had read the case the night before and started to articulate the details of the case. At one point, I mentioned that one of the court rulings in favor of the press was a good sign. Lewis cut me off.
“Just the facts,” he barked.
Then I started to tell the story again. I didn’t know it at the time, but Lewis had written a book on the case he was asking me about. Known as “Make No Law: The Sullivan Case and the First Amendment,” the book is still well known in the legal world today.
Throughout the class, I remained perplexed why Lewis had called on me for no apparent reason. When the class ended, he called out to the top of the lecture hall where I was sitting and said he wanted to see me. When I approached, he said, “Ray Schroth says hello.” It turned out that Schroth, one of my former journalism professors at Fordham, had been socializing with Lewis the night before and told him that I was in the class. The two of them decided that Lewis should call on me the next morning.
This long-forgotten story came to mind this week when I learned that Lewis had died at the age of 85 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He had suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, and his wife, Margaret, the former chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, had retired from her job to care for him in his final years.
Lewis schooled us hard in the First Amendment and made us study the words of the Founding Fathers that say: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
As Lewis preached about the wisdom of the First Amendment, I remember him saying, “Congress shall make no law. No law means no law.”