Smolla boasts diverse legal background

Rod Smolla is on the board of directors of a newspaper chain and has fought legal battles for freedom of the press, yet he has put on his courtroom armor to fight big media over the limits of free speech as well.

The man who will be named Furman University's next president today has staked his reputation on striking the balance between constitutionally protected speech and responsibility of the press.

One case in point arose during last year's presidential election.

When a Washington lobbyist sued The New York Times for printing a story she believed implied that she had an unethical romantic relationship with Sen. John McCain in 2000, Smolla was the attorney in her corner.

The case ended up being settled without lobbyist Vicki Iseman getting the $27 million she had sought, The Washington Post reported in February, but the point was made, Smolla told the newspaper.

The Times ran a statement that it "did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust."

Smolla told The Post that the settlement represented "an honorable judgment by The Times and a vindication of Ms. Iseman's reputation."

In another case that Smolla eventually wrote a book about, "Deliberate Intent: A Lawyer Tells the True Story of Murder by the Book," he represented a family who sued the publisher of a book that a killer used as a guidebook to commit murder.

Smolla is involved in the world of publishing from the other side, too, as a member of the board of directors of Media General, owner of 18 television stations, 21 newspapers and their Web sites, and more than 200 specialty publications based in Richmond, Va.

As a First Amendment expert, he has earned a reputation as a maverick in both the courtroom and academia.

"I have been an advocate for a balance in the world of freedom of speech and freedom of press," Smolla said in an interview with The Greenville News. "I've been both an advocate of freedom of speech and of academic freedom, but also someone who stressed the limits of those freedoms and the importance of responsibility and accountability.

"And so I think that balance is appropriate in our society, and I think it's especially important in our university campuses."

He was profiled in the American Bar Association Journal's "Legal Rebels" section for developing a curriculum at Washington and Lee in which law students spend a year in the field before earning their degree.

In his legal work in Virginia, he is also well acquainted with the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, and its former chief judge, Billy Wilkins of Greenville, who now is practicing law in his hometown after retiring from the bench.

"I've been fortunate to admire many of South Carolina's lawyers and judges and, of course, Judge Wilkins," Smolla said.

Smolla said he won't continue his legal career at Furman, other than possibly teaching a course in constitutional law.

- Ron Barnett, The Greenville News

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