Attorney Burton Joseph; fought for civil rights
April 6, 2010
By KIM JANSSEN
Attorney Burton Joseph, whose colorful career and commitment to civil
liberties saw him defend clients as diverse as Illinois Nazis,
anti-war protesters and Playboy magazine, has died of brain cancer at age 79.
Known for his sense of humor and charm, Mr. Joseph was for decades a
leading voice against censorship, playing a major role in legal cases
that protected Americans' freedom of speech.
A self-confessed "bleeding-heart, knee-jerk First Amendment lawyer,"
he often became firm friends with political and legal opponents.
In his most celebrated case, in the late 1970s, he successfully
persuaded the American Civil Liberties Union to back the National
Socialist Party of America -- a Nazi group -- in its efforts to be
allowed to march through heavily Jewish Skokie.
As the son of Jewish cemetery owners on Chicago's West Side, Mr.
Joseph's stand cost him some friends, but "though he violently
disagreed with what the Nazis said, he strongly believed in their
right to say it," his daughter Jody said.
The Nazis were eventually allowed to march but decided to do so in
Chicago instead. The battle was later dramatized in the TV movie,
"Skokie," and inspired scenes in "The Blues Brothers."
Mr. Joseph, who lived in Evanston but died March 30 at his second
home in San Francisco, graduated from DePaul Law School and first got
involved in First Amendment issues in the 1960s, when he helped
defend Henry Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer against obscenity laws.
Among his many accomplishments with his law firm Joseph, Lichtenstein
& Levinson, he defended activists arrested at the 1968 Democratic
National Convention, acted as executive director of Playboy
magazine's charity, and represented comic book artists through the
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.
In one case, he defended an artist known as "King Velveeda" against a
Kraft Foods lawsuit that alleged the Velveeta cheese brand was being
damaged by online comic strips depicting scenes of bestiality.
In another, he helped ensure that soldiers who wanted to read Playboy
on military bases could do so, his daughter said.
Though he also did routine legal work, he told an interviewer in 1995
that he had been happiest doing unpaid work for the Illinois ACLU,
which he helped build up over a 45-year period.
"It is the discontented, the misfits who really test your commitment
to the values," he said. "Don't look at the personalities. Look at
Mr. Joseph is survived by his wife of 59 years, Babette, whom he met
at Robert Emmet Elementary School in Chicago. She was a student
monitor in charge of collecting absentee slips, but Mr. Joseph
persuaded her not to turn him in for skipping school to play pool.
Also surviving are his daughters Kathy and Amy, and his brother, Jack.
A private service was held in San Francisco. Mr. Joseph's life will
be celebrated May 22 in Evanston.