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Written by David L. Hudson Jr., published on January 1, 2009 , last updated on May 5, 2024

Thomas Emerson

Thomas Irwin Emerson (1907–1991) was arguably the foremost First Amendment scholar of his generation. A System of Freedom of Expression (1970), Emerson’s classic book on free speech, remains one of the seminal works in First Amendment history.


Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a former law school classmate, referred to him in a concurring opinion in Columbia Broadcasting System v. Democratic National Committee (1973) as “our leading First Amendment scholar,” and renowned civil liberties advocate and academician Norman Dorsen (1991) called him “the leading civil liberties scholar of his generation” (p. 317).


Emerson worked in FDR’s administration

Born in Passaic, New Jersey, Emerson obtained his undergraduate and law degrees from Yale University in 1928 and 1931, respectively. Upon graduation, he entered private practice with the prestigious New York firm Engelhard, Pollak, Pitcher and Stern, which represented the Scottsboro Boys in Powell v. Alabama (1932).


In 1933 Emerson joined the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving at the National Recovery Administration, the National Labor Relations Board, the Social Security Board, and the Department of Justice. He later became general counsel of the Office of Economic Stabilization and the Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion.


Emerson successfully argued First Amendment cases

In 1946 Emerson returned to Yale Law as a professor. While at Yale, he also achieved great success as a Supreme Court advocate, successfully arguing the famous privacy decision of Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and the First Amendment and academic freedom case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957).


He served as president of the National Lawyers Guild in 1950–1951. In addition to numerous other books and articles, many of which examined First Amendment issues, he wrote Toward a General Theory of the First Amendment (1966). He retired from Yale in 1976.


For Emerson’s many contributions to the cause of civil liberties, the American Civil Liberties Union awarded him the group’s first Medal of Liberty in 1983.


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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