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Free speech expert Abrams to speak at Law Day luncheon

As far as attorney Floyd Abrams is concerned, there were very good reasons why the framers of the U.S. Constitution dedicated their First Amendment to the issue of free speech.

Free speech and a free press were "top priorities" for Thomas Jefferson and other founders of the nation, Abrams said.

"They had seen what happened in England and the Colonies when efforts were made to limit free speech, especially speech about the government. They knew how destructive that could be to freedom," he said.

Abrams plans to speak about First Amendment freedoms on Thursday, when he will be the keynote speaker at the Erie County Bar Association's annual Law Day awards luncheon in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

For decades, the New York City attorney has been considered one of the nation's premier legal experts on issues involving freedom of speech and the press.

He has appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court many times in First Amendment cases, for clients including the New York Times, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, National Public Radio, Time magazine and Reader's Digest.

Abrams, now 74, has defended numerous news reporters from efforts to force them into naming confidential sources, and he successfully represented NBC News after entertainer Wayne Newton filed a libel suit against the network in the 1980s.

Twelve years ago, he successfully represented the Brooklyn Museum of Art after former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani tried to punish the museum for presenting a controversial art exhibit.

In perhaps his most famous case, Abrams successfully defended the Times after the administration of then-President Richard M. Nixon tried to prevent the newspaper from publishing the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

And he represented former Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent three months in jail in 2005 for refusing to disclose sources who identified Valerie Plame as a CIA agent.

During an interview with The Buffalo News, Abrams said the federal government has "gone back and forth" on press freedom since he argued the Pentagon Papers case four decades ago.

"Under [President Bill] Clinton, new rules were adopted that no government information should be classified as secret unless there was a really good reason to do that. Under President [George W.] Bush, that was repealed," Abrams said.

Abrams said that the current president, Barack Obama, "took office and started down the road to more openness."

"But Obama's administration seems to be more oriented toward punishing people who leak classified information than previous administrations," Abrams said.

At Thursday's event, awards will be presented to Colleen M. Rahill-Beuler and Michael J. Quarantillo of the U.S. Probation office; John J. "Jack" O'Connor of the Buffalo City Court Veterans Treatment Court; State Police Senior Investigator Kevin Kendall of the Violent Felon Warrant Squad; principal court attorney referee Oliver C. Young of the 8th Judicial District of the state courts; and retired Buffalo News investigative reporter Michael Beebe.

Tickets are available from the Bar Association at 852-8687.

e-mail: dherbeck@buffnews.com