A First Amendment Hero
Richard M. Schmidt Jr., 80, longtime general counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors and First Amendment champion, died on October 17.
By Eugene Patterson
Patterson is a former managing editor of the Washington Post, editor of the Atlanta Constitution and St. Petersburg Times and chairman of the Poynter Institute Board of Trustees.
Dick Schmidt loved to say that only God and Chief Justice William Rehnquist knew what the law of libel was, and sometimes he wasn't sure about God. Well, the Creator has now retained the ablest counsel He'll ever find to help keep Heaven free.
Our own loss of his guidance in the news business is irreparable.
Dick wasn't just our wise advocate. He was our warm friend. We'll miss his legal savvy. We can't replace his bear hug of all of us reporters.
He put the defense of the ink-stained ahead of the dignity of his starchy calling. "Most local newspaper lawyers with whom I deal are experts in taxes, labor law and corporate affairs," he told the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors when I was ASNE president nearly three decades ago. "But they haven't heard of the First Amendment, in many instances, since law school. And the way some of them talk, I am not sure they received any education on it then."
"Educate your lawyers," he advised the editors. "If your counsel isn't familiar with the First Amendment, then maybe you'd better think about getting a new lawyer."
As general counsel to ASNE for a generation, Dick loved his work. He responded always eagerly, never reluctantly, when one of us got hit with a subpoena or a libel action. He was quick to coach our local counselors with cases and citations and even finished briefs when we asked for his help. He urged editors to be militant, never timid, in asserting the public's right to know what its hirelings in public office were up to. He was a sleeves-up litigator with a clear eye and a set jaw.
But he had fun too. He had an uproarious sense of humor and an unquenchable love of laughter and an utter appreciation of the absurd, which bonded him to us. Both he and his wife, Ann, knew their way around Washington, D.C. At a party they gave for me at their house on Capitol Hill, Dick casually introduced me to one of the guests. He turned out to be Byron (Whizzer) White, then serving as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
A leading American authority on First Amendment law, Dick got paid peanuts by the press he shielded. His work was a labor of love. He just plain liked us word-struck grubbers, and he devoted his energies to keeping us from being losers.
We returned his limitless affections. His going leaves us bereft. ###