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Honorable William J. Brennan, Jr. (1906-1997)

Brennan_-_for_the_webAssociate Justice, U.S. Supeme Court (1956-1990)

Comments by Mrs. Katherine Graham, Chairman, Washington Post Company, at the LDRC Annual Dinner, Nov. 4, 1992:

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  It's a tremendous honor to speak in tribute to Justice Brennan.  He is one of the most distinguished jurists in the history of our country, one of the pre-eminent Americans of this century.  At the same time, he is a lively man — deceptively and appealingly unassuming.  Justrice Brennan has the congenial air of Everyman, but his greatness is unique.

Justice Brennan's thrity-four years on the Supreme Court were characterized by "legal brilliance, human compassion, and an inspiring belief in racial equality and social justice," as John Jacob of the Urban League said.

Justice Brennan precieved, as he once wrote, that "at the core of the process of government erected by the framers — unwieldy, imperfect, waerisome, sometimes maddening — lay a profound visision of justice, and that it was the duty of the Court to make that vision a reality for the least of men."

Columnist Coleman McCarthy wrote it was the genius of Justice Brennan to "understand that at one moment of another, the least of us can be any of us."

All Americans who cherish the high values and goals of our forefathers owe Justice Brennan a great debt of gratitude.  Those of us in the press are especially mindful of the contributions he made to ensure that robust debate continues to flourish in this country and to produce, as I believe it has done, a better life for all.

In the historic Sullivan decision, Justice Brennan interpreted the First Amendment in a new way to accommodate the reputations of public officials and the democratic values of free speech and a free press.  He recognized that public officials must be protected from intentional injuries.  At the same time, he knew the press and individual speakers must have room to make honest mistakes.

This wise man saw that democratic principles are served by protecting the right to be wrong.

In my view, the press should apply high standards of carefulness and accuracy regardless of libel law, but onerous legal standards should not govern what appears in a newspaper.

Without the Sullivan ruling, the press would be forced to do its job with excessive caution that would be counterproductive.  The reason lies in the essence of journalism itself.  Phil Graham, my husband, called journalism "the first rough draft of history."

By its very nature, this rough draft cannot be definitive and without error.  The press may do its best to report the truth.  But the truth is elusive.  Sometimes it appears in bits and pieces.  Sometimes it is obscured beneath a cloud of charges and counter-charges.  Sometimes it is not what a hostile jury says it is.

Walter Lippmann observed: "The theory of a free press is that the truth will emerge from free reporting and free discussions, not that it will be presented perfectly and instantly in any one account."

Justice Brennan translated this perception into legal precedent that protects public officials, the press, and above all, the public.

For if the press were held to a standard of perfection, the public would indeed be the ultimate loser.  A story such as Watergate — which did emerge in bits and pieces, obscured by counter-charges, covered up by lies — could have unfolded as it did.  And without Sullivan, how could the press pursue, as it should, the troubling stories of the present day, from Iran-Contra and the arming of Saddam Hussein to B.C.C.I. and the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro?

How lucky we are that Justice Brennan's enlightened view of our Constitution found expression in legal decision of supreme practical use and public benefit.  How lucky we are to have the company of this wonderful man in our national life.

1990 portrait by Ken Heinen

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