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Hugh Stevens

About the Author

Hugh Stevens is both a nationally known First Amendment and media lawyer and an experienced litigator. For more than 20 years Hugh served as general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, which designated him as “counsel emeritus” upon his retirement in 2002. In 2003 the Association honored Hugh by selecting him to receive its W. C. Lassiter Award in recognition of his zealous defense of the First Amendment. In 2006 he became only the second lawyer elected to the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame. His hobbies are golf, cooking and Boston Red Sox baseball.

Did You Get Your Commencent Bible?

Author’s Note:  This article, like the previous one, was written in connection with the 50-year commencement reunion of the UNC Class of 1965.  A slightly different version was published in the May/June 2015 issue of the “Carolina Alumni Review.”

Did you get your Commencement Bible?

Do you still have it?            (We won’t ask if you have read it.)

Beginning with the commencement of 1842, UNC presented members of the graduating class with Bibles. According to John Sanders, former director of the Institute of Government, “The practice continued until the closing of the University in 1868, apparently was not resumed upon the reopening of the University in 1875, and was terminated formally by action of the faculty on June 1, 1877.”   On the motion of the Reverend A.D. Betts, a Methodist minister and UNC trustee, the Board of Trustees ordered the practice resumed in 1880, and it was still the order of the day when we graduated 50 years ago. At our commencement everyone receiving a B.A. or B.S. degree was offered a choice of three bibles: the one version (the “King James”) for Protestants, another for Catholics, and an Old Testament edition for Jewish students. If you received one of the approximately 3,000 bibles distributed in connection with our commencement, you found in it signed by the Chancellor saying, “This Holy Bible is presented to you by your Alma Mater on the occasion of your graduation.”

Commencement bibles were free to the graduates. In 1971, Chancellor Ferebee Taylor responded to questions about the practice by appointing a “Subcommittee of Inquiry on the Distribution of Bibles to Graduates of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill” chaired by Professor Sanders. The subcommittee was asked to review the history of the practice; to determine whether State funds were used to defray the cost of buying and distributing the bibles, which was then around $18,000 a year; and make a recommendation as to whether their distribution should be continued. The subcommittee’s report that was submitted in March of 1972 concluded that

The way the University’s books are kept, one cannot trace the payment for the purchase pf Bibles or their distribution back to any particular fee or other University receipt. The collections from the general academic fee, state general fund appropriations, and other receipt all go into a fund from which the Bible purchases are made.

Based on the subcommittee’s conclusion that the practice, if challenged, would likely be found to violate the First Amendment’s “Establishment Clause,” the report urged the University not wait until some citizen sued and forced an end to the practice but instead should discontinue it voluntarily as legally insupportable. Legal considerations aside, the report also included this cogent observation:

However fitting the practice of giving Bibles to graduates in 1842 in the cultural setting of the time and place, we deem it not to be nearly so meaningful in this University today. We . . . do not conceive that a discontinuation of the practice would in any discernable way impair the moral and spiritual development of the graduates of the University. To the extent that the stimulation of such development is the University’s responsibility, our obligation must be met in the span of two to four years that the student spends on this campus; unmet then, it cannot be redeemed by mailing a five dollar Bible to his last known address.

The report recommended that the practice of giving Bibles to graduates at commencement be discontinued without fanfare, and it was.

How Jesse Helms and the Speaker Ban Law Changed My Life

Author’s Note: This article was written in connection with the 50-year reunion of the 1965 graduating class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

When you look back over 50 years to your time at UNC, what shaped your life more – the courses you took and the books you read, or the people and events you encountered outside the classroom?

In my case, the answer is clear: I was privileged to have many great teachers at Chapel Hill, but I became a First Amendment lawyer because of Jesse Helms and the Speaker Ban Law.

I will never forget professors like O.B. Hardison, Andy Scott, Clifford Lyons, J. O. Bailey, Walter Spearman and Peter Walker, but my most important influences were people like UNC President Bill Friday, Chancellor William Aycock, Campus “Y” director Anne Queen and UNC alumnus McNeill Smith, all of whom I got to know well because of our shared antipathy toward the Speaker Ban Law.

Here’s my story.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders organized anti-segregation boycotts and demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama in May of 1963, T.E. “Bull” Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, responded by ordering police and firemen to turn police dogs and high-pressure fire hoses on the demonstrators, many of whom were children. The shocking images of the violent confrontations that television brought into my fraternity’s chapter room hit me in my gut. For me – and, I now know, for many other white southerners – those images caused me to think seriously for the first time about something that up until then I had more or less taken for granted: racial segregation.

I was not the only North Carolina student who was moved by the events in Birmingham. Galvanized by the images of youngsters fleeing from fire hoses and police dogs, students from Shaw University staged sit-ins at Raleigh theaters and restaurants, protested at the Sir Walter Hotel where most members of the General Assembly stayed during the legislative session, and swarmed over the grounds of the Governor’s Mansion while Governor Terry Sanford hosted the annual North Carolina Symphony Ball.

Although Governor Sanford defused the symphony protest by appearing on the south porch of the mansion and offering to meet with the protesters, some other prominent citizens reacted very differently. Jesse Helms, who was then an on-air editorialist for WRAL-TV, saw the protests as evidence of Communist influence, especially at colleges and universities. In June he praised the Ohio legislature for proposing a bill to restrict speakers at their universities, suggesting that it “should also provide a lesson for the rest of us.” Four days later, on the last day of the legislative session, the General Assembly leaders suspended the rules and rushed through what became known as “the Speaker Ban Law,” which prohibited the use of any state-supported college or university facilities by anyone who was a communist, who had advocated the overthrow of the U.S. or North Carolina constitutions, or who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned about subversive activities.

I wasn’t even aware of the law until shortly before I returned to Chapel Hill for my junior year, and even then it didn’t galvanize my attention like the great March on Washington, which occurred on August 28, or President Kennedy’s assassination on November 22. By the spring of 1964, however, the Speaker Ban was very much on my mind. Thanks to firm but measured opposition arguments advanced by Chancellor Aycock and President Friday, I had come to understand that the law posed a serious political and a philosophical threat to the University and the concept of academic freedom. I also saw it as a personal insult; did Jesse Helms and his allies really think that I and my fellow students were so naïve and gullible that we could not be permitted to hear a communist speaker, lest we enlist in the Red Army?

The Speaker Ban loomed like a cloud over our senior year at Chapel Hill. As co-editor of The Daily Tar Heel I wrote editorials decrying the law. More importantly, my position drew me into a wide and varied circle of students, faculty, administrators, alumni and others whose common goal was to remove the cloud from UNC’s academic reputation. The moral and intellectual leaders of the group were President Friday and Student Body President Bob Spearman. Anne Queen, who hosted frequent Sunday brunches at which the conversation was fueled by sherry and Bloody Mary’s, was our de facto social chairman; the regular attendees at her soirees included my hometown state senator, Ralph Scott; Joel Fleishman, Governor Sanford’s administrative assistant; UNC law professor Dan Pollitt; Duke law professor William Van Alstyne; and UNC alumnus Jim Exum, who was then practicing law in Greensboro.

In addition to exposing me to such heady conversation and company, the Speaker Ban also led, unexpectedly, to my long friendship with Charles Kuralt. We met when Charles, who had been editor of The Daily Tar Heel in 1954, came to Chapel Hill in the summer of 1964 to do a story about the law for “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” and we stayed in touch thereafter. Thanks to the Speaker Ban, my wife and I have fond memories of sitting in on the broadcast of “Sunday Morning” followed by gracious lunches with Charles afterward.

The Speaker Ban also led to my acquaintance with J. McNeill (“Mac”) Smith, the Greensboro lawyer and former DTH editor who, with Professors Pollitt and Van Alstyne, filed the federal lawsuit that eventually resulted in the Speaker Ban being declared unconstitutional. During 1963 and 1964 President Friday, Chancellor Aycock and others, including the Consolidated University’s Board of Trustees, had tried diligently, but unsuccessfully, to persuade the General Assembly to repeal or amend the law. By the spring of 1965 it had become apparent to many opponents of the ban that our only hope lay in a federal lawsuit, which Mac Smith volunteered to handle pro bono.

Although I and other student leaders were willing to be named as plaintiffs, two factors delayed the suit. Many of the would-be plaintiffs were graduating in June; more importantly, the lawyers worried that the lawsuit might be dismissed for lack of “standing” unless the students directly challenged the law by inviting one or more prohibited speakers to the campus and having them turned away.

Shortly after we graduated in June the situation was further complicated by the General Assembly’s creation of a special commission to review the law. President Friday and others felt that the ban’s opponents should give the group, which was known as “the Britt Commission,” the opportunity to do its work. In the end the commission recommended, and the General Assembly decided, that the law should be amended to make the University’s trustees and administrators accountable for enforcing a “speaker policy” that gave lip service to a diversity of viewpoints while simultaneously mandating that campus talks by anyone whose appearance would have been prohibited by the law should be “infrequent” and “rare.” By then I was in law school, Bob Spearman was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, and the torch had passed to another cohort of student leaders. In 1966, Student Body President Paul Dickson, DTH editor Ernie McCrary and others forced the issue by inviting Frank Wilkinson and Herbert Aptheker to speak on campus and filing suit when their appearances were forbidden by Chancellor Carlyle Sitterson and the UNC Board of Trustees.

Personally, I would have liked to have been a plaintiff in the Speaker Ban lawsuit, but in the end the most important thing was that in their misguided attempt to curtail UNC’s academic freedom and my First Amendment rights, Jesse Helms and his friends inadvertently provided me with the opportunity to understand and treasure them more deeply, to meet Mac Smith and others who became my friends and mentors, and to find my calling.

A Surprise Honor Named for One of My Heroes

On January 29, 2015 I was surprised and flattered to find myself the recipient of the J. McNeill Smith Award from the North Carolina Bar Association’s Constitutional Rights Section. As I said in the following acceptance remarks, this award is particularly special to me because I was fortunate enough to know the great lawyer for whom it is named.


“Mac” Smith is one of my heroes. I met him in Chapel Hill in 1964 or 1965 when, as co-editor of The Daily Tar Heel, I was involved with a group of students, faculty, administrators, alumni and friends of the University of North Carolina who were actively working to repeal or overturn the notorious Speaker Ban Law. Mac had been editor of the DTH in 1938, so we made a connection.

As most of you know, the Speaker Ban prohibited the use of any state-supported college or university facilities by anyone who was a communist, who had advocated the overthrow of the U.S. or North Carolina constitutions, or who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment when questioned about subversive activities. It was passed in 1963, primarily as the result of saber-rattling by Jesse Helms, who was then an editorialist for WRAL-TV. Helms and his allies saw student participation in civil rights protests as evidence of “communist influence” at colleges and universities, especially UNC.

Mac and other lawyers, including UNC law professor Dan Pollitt and Duke law professor William Van Alstyne, were thinking seriously about challenging the law in federal court as early as 1964. Together with other student leaders, I was willing – indeed eager — to be a plaintiff, but the passage of time and events – including the General Assembly’s amendment of the law in 1965 to make the University’s trustees and administrators responsible for prohibiting campus appearances by “communists” and other anti-American speakers – resulted in delay. Ironically, that amendment made it necessary for any suit challenging the Speaker Ban to be filed against Mac’s own alma mater and its leaders.

It was not until 1966 that Mac and Professors Pollitt and Van Alstyne filed Dickson v. Sitterson, the federal lawsuit that eventually resulted in the Speaker Ban Law being declared unconstitutional; consequently, I missed out on the opportunity to be a plaintiff. That honor fell instead to Ernie McCrary, who had succeeded to the editorship of The Daily Tar Heel. In the meantime, spurred in large measure by the insights I had gained from the Speaker Ban fight, I had put aside my intention to become a journalist and entered law school at Chapel Hill. That’s why I often say that I became a constitutional lawyer because of two people: Jesse Helms, who tried to curtail my First Amendment rights, and Mac Smith, who fought to preserve them.

Mac’s papers, which are in the Southern Historical Collection at UNC’s Wilson Library, reflect the hundreds of hours of planning, research and preparation that he expended in his dogged pursuit of the Speaker Ban case. They also show that except for a few hundred dollars contributed by members of newly-formed North Carolina Civil Liberties Union, which was established in direct response to the Speaker Ban, he handled the suit without pay.

The defeat of the Speaker Ban Law was only one of many important legal victories in Mac Smith’s distinguished career, but I have focused on it today because it provided me with a personal connection to one of North Carolina’s greatest lawyers, and which led directly to my love for constitutional law. I am honored beyond measure to receive an award bearing the name of my friend, mentor and role model, McNeill Smith.

Thank you.

Town of Greece v. Galloway: Disappointing, Surprising and Worrisome

            Having finally found time to read all of the concurring and dissenting opinions in the Supreme Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, I came away disappointed, surprised and more than a little worried.

            My disappointment is grounded not only in the Court’s approval of sectarian invocations at town council meetings, which was not a surprise, but also in the flimsy reasoning underlying Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion. Like former Chief Justice Berger’s 1983 opinion for the Court upholding the practice of having prayers offered in state legislatures by chaplains paid from the public purse (Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783), Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority in Town of Greece is predicated on historic tradition and practice and on the dubious proposition that the invocations are offered primarily for “ceremonial,” rather than religious, purposes. “Marsh,” said Justice Kennedy, “stands for the proposition that it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted.”

            “The tradition reflected in Marsh, he wrote, “permits chaplains to ask their own God for blessings of peace, justice, and freedom that find appreciation among people of all faiths. That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing reference to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition.”

            I yield to no one in my respect for tradition and history, but I simply don’t think “we’ve always done it that way” and “it’s no big deal” are sufficient underpinnings for an important First Amendment decision.

            I’m also disappointed that Justice Kennedy, who has both the demeanor and the reputation of a really nice fellow, seemingly has no real understanding of or empathy with Muslims, Jews, Hindus and non-religious citizens whose elected officials subject them to overtly or even aggressively Christian prayers whenever they attend town council meetings. He wrote that citizens who “feel excluded or disrespected” by sectarian invocations should simply ignore them. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” he said.

            Justice Kennedy’s insensitivity on this point makes me wonder whether he has ever had a meaningful personal conversation with Justice Elena Kagan, whose eloquent dissent clearly expresses the dismay and sense of ostracism experienced by Jewish and other non-Christian citizens when public business inevitably begins with an overtly Christian invocation. Justice Kennedy’s obtuseness pales, however, in comparison with Justice Alito’s blithe dismissal of minority’s objections as “niggling.”

            If the result in the Town of Greece case was not surprising, Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissent was. In a radical deviation from mainstream Constitutional jurisprudence, he posited that the Establishment Clause was not made binding on state and local governments via the Fourteenth Amendment, and thus that the First Amendment does not prevent the town from establishing whatever official religion its elected officials choose.   To their credit, none of Justice Thomas’s colleagues joined in support of this notion, but his raising of it also raises a question: Did the plaintiffs consider challenging the town’s prayer practices on grounds that they violated the Constitution of the State of New York, which dismantled all religious establishments in 1777?

            The most worrisome part about the Town of Greece opinion is its naïveté.   Justice Kennedy has degrees from Stanford, the London School of Economics and the Harvard Law School, but he presumably has not had much experience sitting in on meetings of town or county boards or councils – particularly in rural America or the Bible Belt. If he had, he would have known that not every elected local official will take to heart his admonition that legislative invocations will be deemed constitutional only so long as they are “brief, solemn and respectful” and do not cross over into coercion or intimidation. Rather, a few fervent religious zealots who won’t bother to read the Court’s opinion nevertheless will take it as a blanket endorsement of their own intolerant views.   Indeed, we need look no farther away than Roanoke, Virginia, where a member of the county’s board of supervisors already has announced that in light of the Court’s decision his board should adopt a policy authorizing only Christian invocations at its meetings.

            I predict, sorrowfully but confidently, that in short order many more such policies will be proposed, and that some of them will be adopted. If so, Justice Kennedy and his majority colleagues will discover that in attempting to put “ceremonial” legislative prayer in its own Constitutional box they instead have opened a Pandora’s box from which will emerge many frightening and divisive Establishment Clause issues.



Will the Hudson-Levinson race be principled, or putrid?

            Now that the primary election is over, the putatively nonpartisan election for the North Carolina Supreme Court seat currently held by Justice Robin Hudson is, in reality, a head-to-head contest between Justice Hudson, a Democrat, and Superior Court Judge Eric Levinson, a Republican.

            Gone from the airways, at least for now, is the despicable and scurrilous television ad that maliciously and falsely attacked Justice Hudson as “not tough on child molesters.”   The ad cited a 2010 decision in which the court’s seven members split, 4-3, over the constitutionality of a state law that required convicted sex offenders to undergo satellite-based monitoring, or “SBM,” 24-7, even if their offenses had been committed before the law was passed and they had completed their penal and probationary sentences.   The only issue in the case was whether the monitoring – which significantly restricted the travel and activities of those who were subject to it – was a form of “punishment.”   If so, its retroactive application ran afoul of the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions, both of which prohibit the ex post facto application of criminal laws.

            The issue was both an important constitutional question and a close call. Courts in other states had gone both ways.   The applicable facts raised thorny issues about which reasonable people clearly could differ. (For example, one question addressed by the court arose out of the fact that the SBM equipment prevented anyone being monitored from taking a commercial airline flight. Is this deprivation a form of “punishment?”)

            In an opinion written by Justice Dan Brady and concurred in by Justices Mark Martin, Bob Edmunds and Paul Newby, the majority explained in detail why they felt that SBM was not punitive.   Justice Hudson, in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Sarah Parker and Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, explained just as fully why they thought otherwise. Both Justice Brady and Justice Hudson argued passionately for their respective views of the constitutional issue, but neither had a kind word for child molesters or sex offenders. Moreover, since the record pretty clearly showed that the monitoring was a huge nuisance both for those being monitored and those doing the monitoring, and was not really effective as a crime prevention measure, the outcome of the case appears at the end of the day to have been largely symbolic.

            Now the question is whether this tempest in a legal teapot will continue defile and define what should be a campaign between two principled people. I know and respect both Justice Hudson and Judge Levinson. Either is well qualified to sit on the North Carolina Supreme Court. But the onus in this race, like it or not, now falls on the latter.   Will Judge Levinson disavow and repudiate the shabby and underhanded tactics of the big-money crowd that paid for the “not tough on child molesters” ad? If so, he is worthy of the voters’ consideration in November.   Otherwise, he isn’t.


Some brief reflections on the Boyce v. Cooper settlement

            The surprise settlement of the 14-year-old libel suit that Dan Boyce and his family filed against Attorney General Roy Cooper and some of his campaign staffers is mostly, but not entirely, good news.

            It’s certainly good news for the parties, their lawyers and the judges and administrators of North Carolina’s court system, all of whom have devoted far too much time and energy to a case that never should have been filed or that should have been dismissed or settled a long time ago. The settlement spares everyone involved of the uncertainty and stress of one or more trials and who knows how many ensuing appeals.

            It’s especially good news for the plaintiffs, who got something from Cooper they never could have gotten from the courts: an apology, albeit of the kind that my mother, who spoke primarily in Southern aphorisms and metaphors, might have called “left-handed” or “a pretty sorry ‘sorry.’” No matter how you characterize it, the Boyces and the Isleys can crow about it if they want to, and some of them surely will.

            It’s also particularly good news for Attorney General Cooper, because it defuses a potentially explosive mine from the road to the 2016 gubernatorial election and enhances the likelihood that he will be able to pre-empt the field of potential Democratic candidates.

            It’s bad news for people for whom fiercely contested courtroom battles are a favorite form of free entertainment. A trial would have featured some of North Carolina’s most skilled, experienced and – particularly in the case of Dan Boyce’s father, Eugene Boyce – colorful attorneys going toe-to-toe over complex issues of First Amendment law.

            Finally, the settlement also is bad news for the state of libel law in North Carolina, because it forever forecloses any opportunity for the North Carolina Supreme Court to repudiate and correct an egregiously wrong decision by a panel of the state’s Court of Appeals in 2002. That decision, which misinterpreted and misapplied well-settled principles of North Carolina defamation law, overruled a trial judge’s dismissal of the Boyce v. Cooper case and set it on the tortuous, expensive and needless journey that finally ended with the unexpected settlement. It also injected uncertainty and confusion into the field of North Carolina libel law, which already was arcane and complex and did not need additional the additional aggravation provided by the panel’s wrong-headed opinion. Despite widespread criticism of the decision at the time, the state’s highest court declined to review and correct it then, and has now lost forever the chance to do so.   Thus, as I wrote ten years ago, in the North Carolina Law Review, the Court of Appeals’ opinion

. . . promises to become a peculiarly dangerous specimen of legal jetsam, cast adrift on the sea of the law and presenting serious hazards for judges and litigants who attempt to navigate the already confounding currents of North Carolina defamation law.

The Boyce v. Cooper Show Gets Ready to Open

Barring an unlikely “courthouse steps” settlement or other unforeseeable development, it appears that the libel suit spawned by the 2000 election for North Carolina’s Attorney General – Boyce & Isley, et al. v. Cooper — will be going to a jury trial on April 28 after almost 14 years of legal wrangling.

As the Supreme Court explained in 1992, the type of speech at issue in the suit — a televised campaign ad — is the quintessential example of the category of speech that enjoys the highest level of First Amendment protection:

“Whatever differences may exist about interpretations of the First Amendment, there is practically universal agreement that a major purpose of that Amendment was to protect the free discussion of governmental affairs.” Mills v. Alabama, 384 U.S., at 218, 86 S. Ct., at 1437. “For speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government.” Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64, 74–75, 85 S.Ct. 209, 216, 13 L.Ed.2d 125 (1964).  Accordingly, this Court has recognized that “the First Amendment ‘has its fullest and most urgent application’ to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.” Eu v. San Francisco Cty. Democratic Central Comm., 489 U.S. 214, 223, 109 S.Ct. 1013, 1020, 103 L.Ed.2d 271 (1989) (quoting Monitor Patriot Co. v. Roy, 401 U.S. 265, 272, 91 S.Ct. 621, 625, 28 L.Ed.2d 35 (1971)).

Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191, 196, 112 S. Ct. 1846, 1850, 119 L. Ed. 2d 5 (1992).

In my view, which I expressed more than 10 years ago in a North Carolina Law Review article, our courts should have dismissed the case at the outset in reliance both on this fundamental tenet of Constitutional law and on fundamental, well-settled principles of North Carolina libel law.   (You can read the copyrighted law review article here:  Instead they allowed the case to proceed, thereby engendering years of wasteful and unnecessary litigation and appeals, as well as widespread confusion and misunderstanding about North Carolina defamation law.  So now, long after the campaign that fomented it has faded into history, the participants stand on the verge of a jury trial that never should have occurred – and which is likely to generate further appeals and litigation, regardless of its outcome.

To complicate an unnecessarily complicated case even further, the trial that is scheduled to begin later this month will involve only part of the case. One of the many oddities of defamation law is that unlike other torts, both the degree of fault that a libel plaintiff must prove, and the evidentiary standard by which he or she must prove it, vary according to the nature of the publication and the status of the plaintiff.   “In actions for defamation, the nature or status of the parties involved is a significant factor in determining the applicable legal standards.” Proffitt v. Greensboro News & Record, 91 N.C.App. 218, 221, 371 S.E.2d 292, 293 (1988).

In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U. S. Supreme Court prohibited public officials from recovering for alleged defamatory statements relating to their official conduct without first proving that the statement was made with actual malice. 376 U.S. 254 (1964).  The Court defined actual malice as a statement made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Id.  Later, in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, the principle set forth in Sullivan was extended to “public figures.” 388 U.S. 130 (1967).  Public figures are categorized as involuntary public figures, general purpose public figures, and limited purpose public figures. Gaunt v. Pittaway, 139 N.C.App. 778, 785, 534 S.E.2d 660, 664 (2000) (citing Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974)). “Under North Carolina law, an individual may become a limited purpose public figure by his purposeful activity amounting to a thrusting of his personality into the ‘vortex’ of an important public controversy.” Id. at 786, 534 S.E.2d at 665.

Because the appropriate evidentiary standards differ according to whether a plaintiff is a “public” or “private” figure, each plaintiff’s status is a threshold matter that the court must determine in advance of trial. In this case the trial judge’s decision was complicated by the fact that the suit was filed on behalf of five plaintiffs: Dan Boyce, who as a candidate for Attorney General unquestionably is a public figure, and four others whose status is less clear: Dan’s father Eugene Boyce; his sister Laura Boyce Isley; his brother-in-law Phillip Isley; and Boyce & Isley, LLP, the law firm where all four individuals practiced in 2000.   Last week the trial judge ruled that Eugene Boyce is a public figure and ordered the case severed.   Accordingly, the trial that is scheduled to commence on April 28 will involve only the claims asserted by Dan Boyce and his father; the claims of Phillip and Laura Isley, neither of whom was determined to be a public figure, are reserved for a second trial.

In order to persuade the judge that Eugene Boyce is a public figure the defendants had to overcome the formidable obstacles presented by the Supreme Court’s 1974 decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. In Gertz, the Court held that an attorney was not a public figure even though he had sued the City of Chicago on behalf of a family whose child was shot and killed by a policeman; had “long been active in community and professional affairs;” had been an officer of local civic groups and professional organizations; and had published several books and articles on legal subjects. The Court determined that the lawyer had neither “achieved general fame or notoriety in the community” nor “thrust himself into the vortex” of a controversial public issue, and thus was a private figure for purposes of his libel suit.

Although the defense had argued vigorously that Gene Boyce was both a general purpose and a limited purpose public figure, the judge did not indicate clearly which type of public figure he deemed him to be. In any event, the plaintiffs did not put up a particularly strenuous opposition to the ruling; Mr. Knott told the court that it really didn’t matter, because they had plenty of evidence with which to prove “actual malice,” regardless of how many plaintiffs were classified as public figures. Moreover, anyone who has known and watched Gene Boyce over many years probably believes that he accepted the judge’s ruling with an unusual degree of equanimity because in his mind he IS a “public figure.”

The “public figure” trial, if it occurs, promises to be riveting political and legal theatre. In the starring roles are the parties, who clearly despise each other: Dan Boyce and his flamboyant and famous father Gene, as the plaintiffs, and gubernatorial hopeful Attorney General Roy Cooper, as the central defendant.   The supporting cast comprises some of North Carolina’s most prominent and seasoned lawyers.   Cooper’s lawyers include Alan Duncan, the current president of the North Carolina Bar Association, and his law partner Allison Van Laningham; together they successfully defended former U.S. Senator John Edwards on federal campaign corruption charges. They will be joined at the defense table by Jim Phillips, a former chair of the UNC Board of Governors, and two of his colleagues from the Brooks Pierce law firm, Eric David and Charles Coble. The plaintiffs’ case will be orchestrated by Gene Boyce himself, who will serve both as lawyer and witness, and by Joe Knott, a courtly, white-haired Wake County attorney who signed onto the plaintiffs’ team recently.    Presiding over the trial will be Osmond Smith, an experienced and unflappable Superior Court judge from Caswell County whose soft voice and imperturbable affect will present a welcome contrast to the argumentative and sometimes boisterous styles of the combatants.

Whatever its outcome, Boyce v. Cooper promises to be quite a show.