“You can sit in on my class, but only if you promise you’ll say nothing.”
That was Don Gillmor’s response to my asking him 15 years ago if I might sit in on his graduate-level freedom of speech class. It was his signature class, and this was to be the last time he would teach that class before he retired.
The following day I entered his small Murphy Hall classroom at the University of Minnesota, packed with the best and brightest of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s graduate crop, and settled into a desk seat in the back row. A few minutes later Don entered the room, slowly scanned all the assembled faces and began his lecture, frequently stopping to ask questions, gently badger students and pace around his desk, all the while discussing the Founding Fathers’ intent when it came to protecting speech.
True to my promise I kept my mouth shut. Then, with 10 minutes remaining at the end of the class, Don looked at me and asked, “Prof. Babcock, how would you see this from an ethics perspective?” I looked at him in silent disbelief. After a few seconds of awkward silence he looked at me and gave a slow, slight nod, that I took to mean I had a reprieve from my vow of silence.
I responded, he countered. I made another point; he deftly parried. I made a third point; he agreed. This spirited repartee´continued until the end of the class. But not only for the first class. Don subsequently asked me to give my “ethics perspective” during the final 10 minutes of each freedom of speech class that spring semester. And in each class my comments provided the springboard for a spirited point-counterpoint discussion between Don and myself.
On the last day of the semester, on the last day of Don’s last SJMC class, faculty members assembled in his classroom where a cake was served. Don reluctantly yielded his desk so that I might pay tribute to him in front of the assembled faculty and his class. As I looked down at the desk he had just vacated, I noticed his stack of 5x8” lecture card notes, I realized that he had updated his notes with court decisions handed down as recently as a few weeks ago—a symbol of the timely diligence with which he approached every class, even his last. He simply would have considered it unethical to his students not to keep current on legal issues.
To those who knew him, it’s no surprise Don considered ethics to be at the core of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech. Don viewed the law as a sort of institutionalized morality, and he considered laws without a strong moral underpinning to be vacuous.
Some 20 years ago he related to me the story of the naming of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. He told me that he had worked with Otto Silha, the center’s benefactor, to make sure the words of the center’s name were in proper order, with “study” being of primary importance, as scholarship and research were to be at the epicenter of the center’s mission. He then said that even though he, the center’s founding director, was a First Amendment scholar, it was important that “ethics” precede “law” in the center’s title.
At the 1998 retirement media ethics and law conference held in the Twin Cities to honor Don, papers were presented by the who’s-who of media responsibility and rights, including Jerome Barron, Ann Kappler, Donald Pember, Robert Trager, Clifford Christians, Deni Elliott, Louis Hodges, Timothy Gleason, John Borger, Joanne Byrd, James Naughton and John Walsh. James Goodale, Theodore Glasser and Mark Yudof moderated panels. All were stars in a universe where Don was the brightest shining constellation.
Dr. Donald M. Gillmor: journalist, eminent legal scholar, ardent First Amendment advocate, proud Canadian of Scottish ancestry, defender of the underdog, winner of the University of Minnesota’s top researcher and top teacher awards, ardent lover of his wife Sophie, devoted father to Peter and Vivian and connoisseur of 18-year-old single malt whisky.
It is a shame he did not live forever.
But if he had to pass on, it seems only fitting that a man with a heart the size of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument, would leave us on Valentines Day.
- William A. Babcock is Senior Ethics Professor, School of Journalism, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.