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The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst, Free Speech Renegade

A long-overdue biography of the legendary civil liberties lawyer—a vital and contrary figure who both defended Ulysses and fawned over J. Edgar Hoover.

In the 1930s and ’40s, Morris Ernst was one of America’s best-known liberal lawyers. The ACLU’s general counsel for decades, Ernst was renowned for his audacious fights against artistic censorship. He successfully defended Ulysses against obscenity charges, litigated groundbreaking reproductive rights cases, and supported the widespread expansion of protections for sexual expression, union organizing, and public speech. Yet Ernst was also a man of stark contradictions, waging a personal battle against Communism, defending an autocrat, and aligning himself with J. Edgar Hoover’s inflammatory crusades.

Arriving at a moment when issues of privacy, artistic freedom, and personal expression are freshly relevant, The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst, Free Speech Renegade brings this singularly complex figure into a timely new light. As Samantha Barbas’s eloquent and compelling biography makes ironically clear, Ernst both transformed free speech in America and inflicted damage to the cause of civil liberties. Drawing on Ernst’s voluminous cache of publications and papers, Barbas follows the life of this singular idealist from his pugnacious early career to his legal triumphs of the 1930s and ’40s and his later idiosyncratic zealotry. As she shows, today’s challenges to free speech and the exercise of political power make Morris Ernst’s battles as pertinent as ever.

424 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2021

Biography and Letters

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: Legal History

Political Science: American Government and Politics


"A fascinating and thoroughly researched biography of an important twentieth-century figure whose tragic flaws denied him a place of honor in the roster of great civil liberties lawyers despite his remarkable accomplishments. . . . Barbas’s engrossing and lucid examination of the rise and fall of Morris Ernst comes at an opportune time."

Los Angeles Review of Books

“A lively and illuminating portrait of one of the major figures in the history of American civil liberties. Barbas captures Ernst in all his glory and complexity, revealing how a man who was once the country’s leading liberal lawyer became a red-baiter and Hoover ally. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst is biography and legal history at its finest.”

Thomas Healy, author of The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America

“Does Morris Ernst need a biography? Yes, definitely. His is a fascinating story of a major civil libertarian who pioneered the expansion of freedom in American life then blew it all through obsessive anti-Communism. Barbas writes beautifully, and this lively, lucid book is a pleasure to read. More than that, her biography is especially significant today since so many of the issues Ernst fought against are still urgently relevant in American political discourse.”

Ellen Schrecker, author of The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s

“How could one man have been both a leading defender of the First Amendment and an avid fan of J. Edgar Hoover? Barbas’s fascinating biography answers that question by telling the remarkable story of one of the nation’s most influential, and complicated, civil liberties lawyers.”

David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union

“Ernst was a singular warrior for the freedom of expression, ultimately undone by his paradoxical embrace of Hoover and McCarthy. Barbas’s biography is a sharp, fast-paced account of a twentieth-century civil libertarian who fought for causes that are still vital today.”

Nadine Strossen, author of HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship

Table of Contents

1 Early Years
2 Williams
3 New York
4 Greenbaum, Wolff, and Ernst
5 Adventures
6 Free Speech Lawyer
7 To the Pure
8 The Sex Side of Life
9 Sex Wins in America
10 Troubled Times
11 Freedom for the Thought That We Hate
12 Ulysses
13 The Importance of Being Ernst
14 Defending the New Deal
15 The Champion of Freedom
16 The National Lawyers Guild
17 Ernst vs. Hague
18 Controversy in the ACLU
19 The Turning Tide
20 Ernst at His Worst
21 Desperate Moves
22 Utopia 1976

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