As a New Orleanian (non-native) and a public law scholar, it is hard not to feel a perverse sense of pride about Louisiana's tradition of contributing to the development of constitutional rights by thwarting them. Prof. Cortner's new book lavishly details one important episode in this tradition: Huey Long's experiments with press censorship and the constitutional battle that ensued over them. Without a doubt, the story of Long's colorful despotism, his struggle with the state press, and the resulting establishment of constitutional protections for press freedom makes for lively reading. Cortner's entertaining yet meticulously researched narrative should have broad appeal to historians of the American South , Supreme Court scholars, and students of political personality.
The Huey Long saga offers interesting lessons on the precarious nature of democratic institutions before the forces of political demagoguery. During his political reign as Governor and later (though some would say simultaneously) as U.S. Senator, Huey Long held veritable dominion over the institutions of Louisiana state government. (His political opponents only half-jokingly referred to assassination as the only remaining vehicle for rotation in office.) The one democratic institution that Long failed to dominate was the Louisiana press. The criticism of his policies and political style by major newspapers in New Orleans, Shreveport, and Baton Rouge not only irritated the Kingfish, it precipitated the defeat of his program in the 1930 legislative session. Cortner richly details Long's comeback from this setback, describing Long's creation of his own press organ, the LOUISIANA PROGRESS, which was later rechristened the AMERICAN PROGRESS as Long's political ambitions broadened. The centerpiece of Long's offensive against his journalist enemies was his plan for a newspaper advertising tax, designed to punish the daily papers that had been Long's most vociferous critics. Relying on archival materials and contemporary sources, including editorials from the many papers affected by the tax, Cortner reconstructs the political battles of the 1930s, from which Long emerged as the victor. With the successful passage of the newspaper tax in the 1934 legislative session, and with his alleged mistress, Alice Grosjean, installed as the official responsible for the collection of the new tax, Long's "tax on lying, at two-cents a lie" seemed to presage his complete strangle-hold on democratic governance in the state. As the NEW ORLEANS TIMES-PICAYUNE commented at the time, "the rape of representative government, and the assault upon a free press just driven to success by the openly wielded lash of a dictator without principle, honest conviction or scruple constitute the blackest chapter in Louisiana's history." (91)
From here, Cortner turns to the testing of the advertising tax in court. He intertwines the story of the preparations of the various counsel for the Louisiana papers with an
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overview of the political and doctrinal predispositions of the federal judges who would hear the case. Some of the coverage of First Amendment law and the history of press censorship may be a bit rapid for some non-legal specialists, but, in general, the discussion of constitutional precedents like NEAR V. MINNESOTA is well-integrated into the saga of the litigation. Cortner explains lucidly how the newspaper counsel sought to avoid state courts (many of whose judges were Long-controlled), and how the ignorance of the counsel for the state of Louisiana helped doom the state's case in federal court. Cortner makes clear that the case that would be styled AMERICAN PRESS CO. V. GROSJEAN in the district court was of major importance to national press interests.
Following the three-judge district court's invalidation of the advertising tax on the grounds of discrimination among newspapers in Louisiana, the punitive nature and general illegitimacy of the tax seemed apparent. But GROSJEAN did not truly establish press freedom until its appeal to and decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Cortner traces the increasingly corrupt labyrinth of Long-led political maneuverings that were the backdrop to the GROSJEAN appeal. The Kingfish did not live to learn the fate of his attempted-censorship of the Louisiana dailies; Long was shot by an assassin on the steps of the Louisiana house chamber in September of 1935, and oral arguments in the advertising tax case were heard by the Supreme Court in January of 1936. In a familiar but well-executed review of the politics of the Court during the mid-1930s, Cortner shows how the justices used GROSJEAN to broaden the constitutional guarantee of press freedom beyond the prohibition of prior restraint. Yet as Cortner points out, in a final twist of fate, the decision was announced on the day that Mrs. Rose McConnell Long appeared in the U.S. Senate to be sworn in to serve out her late husband's term.
Cortner's book is an exceptional work of archival scholarship, showing careful attention to detail. As he tells us in his bibliographic essay, he read every issue of Long's mouthpiece, the PROGRESS, from its beginning in 1930 until it ceased publication. Not only does he fully capture the flavor of Louisiana politics of the time, he creatively links the forces of state politics with the developments of constitutional law. Few scholars observe this interaction carefully -- an interaction so vital to this period of the incorporation of the Bill of Rights against the states. Cortner has made an important contribution to the writing of political history and shown constitutional law scholars the relevance of such work.