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Written by David L. Hudson Jr., published on August 12, 2023 , last updated on May 7, 2024

Damon Keith

In this 2017 photo, Judge Damon J. Keith is interviewed in his office in Detroit. Keith, marking 50 years as a federal judge, says he's driven by two maxims: "Treat everyone with dignity" and "Equal justice under law." (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, with permission from The Associated Press.)

Damon Keith (1922-2019) was a long-serving judge on the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and before that a federal district court judge from his home state of Michigan.


The grandson of slaves, Keith overcame severe racial discrimination to become an eminent federal jurist. Wayne State President Roy Wilson may have said it best: “Damon Keith was a giant in law, in civil rights, and in life.” (Rubin).  


Keith studied under Thurgood Marshall in law school


Born in 1922 in Detroit, Keith graduated high school from Northwestern High School and college from West Virginia State College. He then earned a law degree from Howard University School of Law where he studied under the legendary Thurgood Marshall. He later obtained an LLM (masters of law) from Wayne State University Law School.


For many years he engaged in the private practice of law in Detroit and served as co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. In 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson nominated him to a federal district court judgeship in the Eastern District of Michigan. He served there for about a decade until President Jimmy Carter elevated him to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a court he served on until his death in 2019.


Keith wrote many First Amendment decisions


During his long tenure as a federal jurist, Keith authored many First Amendment decisions.

During his long tenure as a federal jurist, Damon Keith authored many First Amendment decisions. In this photo, Keith, third from left, listens to speeches, during a memorial services for Rosa Parks at the Metropolitan AME Church in 2005. (AP Photo/Ron Thomas, used with permission from the Associated Press)

For example, in 1972 he ruled in Church v. Board of Education (E.D.Mich. 1972) that high school student Don Leslie Church, Jr. had a First Amendment right to wear long hair as a “symbol of political expression.” Keith reasoned that Church’s symbolic expression were covered under the U.S. Supreme Court’s famous black armband ruling in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969).


Keith, sitting by designation as a judge on the Sixth Circuit, ruled in Melton v. Young (6th Cir. 1972) that public school officials in Chattanooga, Tennessee, could prohibit a student from wearing a Confederate flag jacket to school, because of serious racial tensions at the school, which had created a substantial disruption of school activities within the meaning of Tinker.


Keith ruled in Parks v. City of Columbus (6th Cir. 2005) that Columbus, Ohio, officials could not prohibit the speech of a religious speaker who wanted to distribute literature at an arts festival. Keith reasoned that city officials could not ban the speaker simply because some found his speech offensive.  


Perhaps most famously, Keith rebuked the federal government’s attempt to shut down all immigration hearings right after the 9/11 attacks in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft (2002). Keith, writing for a unanimous panel, famously wrote: “Democracies die behind closed doors.” 


David L. Hudson, Jr. is a law professor at Belmont who publishes widely on First Amendment topics.  He is the author of a 12-lecture audio course on the First Amendment entitled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (Now You Know Media, 2018).  He also is the author of many First Amendment books, including The First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (Thomson Reuters, 2012) and Freedom of Speech: Documents Decoded (ABC-CLIO, 2017). This article was originally published in 2009.

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