Leonard Levy: 83, Expert on Constitutional History, Is Dead

Historians in the News

Leonard W. Levy, an exacting, dogged, prolific and combative constitutional historian whose work was frequently cited by the United States Supreme Court and won him a Pulitzer Prize, died on Aug. 24 in Ashland, Ore. He was 83. His death followed years of poor health and a recent stroke, said his wife, Elyse. Professor Levy’s Pulitzer, the 1969 prize for history, was awarded for his “Origins of the Fifth Amendment.” He published almost 40 other books, on topics including religious liberty, Thomas Jefferson and constitutional interpretation. But it was his work on the scope of the First Amendment’s protection of free expression that gained the most attention. His “Legacy of Suppression: Freedom of Speech and Press in Early American History,” published in 1960, argued that the framers of the Constitution had had a crabbed view of press freedom, limited largely to prohibiting prior censorship and perfectly comfortable with subsequent punishment for speech they thought harmful, including attacks on the government. “I have been reluctantly forced to conclude,” Professor Levy wrote, “that the generation which adopted the Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not believe in a broad scope for freedom of expression, particularly in the realm of politics.” That assessment, at odds with the conventional wisdom, gave rise to withering attacks on his work. Justice Hugo L. Black of the Supreme Court, a First Amendment absolutist, wrote in a letter to a friend that the book was “probably one of the most devastating blows that has been delivered against civil liberty in America for a long time.” But Professor Levy was capable of changing his mind. “He was scrupulously honest and fair in his assessments of his own writings and other people’s writings,” said Kenneth L. Karst, who collaborated with him in editing the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution. Indeed, Professor Levy revised “Legacy of Suppression” in 1985 and gave it a telling new title: “Emergence of a Free Press.”...

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