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The Price of free speech

Lesson: It CAN cost you.


On the one hand, Troy Price sounds like a First Amendment absolutist, fitting for a former journalist. "The First Amendment is the last one I'd want to let go," says Price, 47, a partner in the Little Rock firm of Wright, Lindsey and Jennings. "It's protective of every other right in the Bill of Rights." Then there's the other hand. There's not a lot of First Amendment law to practice. When cases arise, you might find the ACLU on one side and a major firm with a large defense practice on the other. Price's work is primarily appellate practice, writing briefs to support or overturn trial verdicts, and so he's found himself on the defense for major clients accused of abridging First Amendment rights. Price's highest profile First Amendment work was a last-second win, now something of a landmark case. A Pulaski County eighth-grader, unhappy because his girlfriend had broken up with him, poured out his anger in a rap song. The language would make Dick Cheney blush. Some 90 f-bombs weren't the only problem. The boy also talked of sodomizing and killing the girl. He didn't deliver the song, written in the form of a letter. A friend found it in the boy's room and gave the girl a copy. Though the letter was written at home and not communicated to the girl, the Pulaski County School Board expelled the author. A federal judge held that his speech rights had been violated. A federal appeals court panel agreed. But the whole Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reheard the case and voted 5-4 to uphold the school district, which Price represented along with Greg Jones. The court agreed with their argument that the song constituted a "true threat," not protected speech. Price, as measured and precise in speaking as he is in his legal writing, says there were strong arguments on both sides. It is often the case, he said, that First Amendment issues come down to an "exquisite balancing act." (Remember: the First Amendment applies only to government. A private employer is free to fire you for what you say.) First Amendment cases often attract wide attention. Take Nolan Richardson.. The former Razorback basketball coach complained his free speech right was violated when the University of Arkansas fired him after he loudly proclaimed the UA could buy out his contract if officials weren't happy with him. Federal Judge William R. Wilson Jr. ruled in the university's favor. Price's firm sometimes represents the university, so he didn't want to talk about the Richardson case. Given his interest in civil rights law, which he has taught, you might suspect he has thoughts on it. But his work for another university is instructive. Price represented Arkansas State University when it was defending its firing of President John Mangieri, in part over an alleged sexual impropriety. Mangieri argued that he was fired for saying unflattering things about the Board of Trustees. Price wrote a brief that said public employees "do not have free rein to say anything they please about the institutions they represent. The plaintiff in this case must first clear the hurdle of establishing that his speech was directed to matters of public concern, rather than personal retribution against Board members who had lost confidence in his ability to lead ASU." The university's insurance company eventually settled the case with Mangieri, over objections from trustees. Noted: Price's language could have applied almost verbatim in the decision against Richardson. Price wouldn't have had much homework to do on the athletic end of the Richardson case. A Little Rock native, he got an early start in newspapering as editor of the Central High School Tiger. He majored in journalism at ASU and finished most of the work for a master's in journalism there, working while in college as a sportswriter for the Jonesboro Sun. He left journalism behind for the UALR Law School, where he was executive editor of the UALR Law Journal. Price is probably best known as a writer. A senior partner at the Wright firm says every member of the firm thinks that Price is the firm's best writer - after themselves, of course. Price is almost lyrical in discussing the craft. He talks of the rhythm of language - the way a burst of short sentences can give a sense of fast action, for example. And the sportswriter's love of metaphors emerges: "The best brief is a little bit like a really good referee," Price says. "It controls the flow of things, but is not intrusive." Funny thing about free speech. The American people are ambivalent about it. In poll after poll, many think the First Amendment goes to far, nearly a majority in one poll taken immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. Troy Price says this about those who think the First Amendment goes too far: "I suspect they're the same people who'd be the first to say 'it's a free country' if there was something they had a view about and wanted to express it."

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