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Journalism prof Don Gillmor always taught ethical underpinnings of First Amendment

William A. Babcock
Southern Illinois UniversityWilliam A. Babcock

Editor’s note: These remarks were prepared by William A. Babcock for delivery Saturday at a memorial service for noted University of Minnesota Professor Donald M. Gillmor,  who taught for 45 years,  primarily at the University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Babcock is the former director of the University’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. He currently is senior ethics professor at the School of Journalism of Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

“You can sit in on my class, but only if you promise you’ll say nothing.”

That was Don’s response to my asking him 15 years ago if I might attend his graduate-level freedom of speech class. It was his signature class, and this was to be the last time he would teach that class, as he had announced his retirement.

The following day I entered his small Murphy Hall classroom, packed with the best and brightest of the graduate crop at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and settled into a desk seat in the back row. A few minutes later Don entered the room, slowly scanned all the assembled faces and began his lecture, frequently stopping to ask questions, gently badger students and pace around his desk, all the while discussing the Founding Fathers’ intent when it came to protecting speech.

True to my promise I kept my mouth shut. Then, with 10 minutes remaining at the end of the class, Don looked at me and asked, “Prof. Babcock, how would you see this from an ethics perspective?” I looked at him in silent disbelief. After a few seconds of awkward silence he looked at me and gave a slow, slight nod that I took to mean I had a reprieve from my vow of silence.

I responded; he countered. I made another point; he deftly parried. I made a third point; he agreed. This spirited repartee continued until the end of the class. But not only for the first class. Don subsequently asked me to give my “ethics perspective” during the final 10 minutes of each freedom of speech class that spring semester. And in each class my comments provided the springboard for a spirited point-counterpoint discussion between Don and myself.

On the last day of the semester, on the last day of Don’s last SJMC class, faculty members assembled in his classroom where a cake was served. Don reluctantly yielded his desk so that I might pay tribute to him to the assembled faculty and to his class. As I looked down at the desk he had just vacated, I noticed his stack of 5x8 lecture card notes, I realized that he had updated his notes with court decisions as recently as a few weeks ago – a tribute to the timely diligence with which he approached every class, even his last.  He simply would have considered it unethical to his students to not keep current on legal issues.

Don Gillmor
University of MinnesotaDon Gillmor

To those who knew him, it’s no surprise Don considered ethics to be at the core of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.  Don viewed the law as a sort of institutionalized morality, and he considered laws without a strong moral underpinning to be vacuous.

Some 20 years ago he related to me the story of the naming of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law. He told me that he had worked with Otto Silha, the center’s benefactor, to make sure the words of the center’s name were in proper order, with “study,” being of primary importance as scholarship and research were to be at the epicenter of the center’s mission.   He then said that even though he, the center’s founding director, was a First Amendment scholar, it was important that “ethics” precede “law” in the center’s title.

At the 1998 retirement media ethics and law conference held in the Twin Cities to honor Don, papers were presented by the who’s-who of media responsibility and rights, including Jerome Barron, Ann Kappler, Donald Pember, Robert Trager, Clifford Christians, Deni Elliott, Louis Hodges, Timothy Gleason, John Borger, Joanne Byrd, James Naughton and John Walsh.  James Goodale, Theodore Glasser and Mark Yudof moderated panels.  All were stars in a universe where Don was the shining constellation.

Dr. Donald M. Gillmor: journalist, eminent legal scholar, ardent First Amendment advocate, proud Canadian of Scottish ancestry, defender of the underdog, winner of the University of Minnesota’s top researcher and top teacher awards, ardent lover of his wife Sophie, devoted father to Peter and Vivian and connoisseur of 18-year-old single malt whisky.

It is a shame he did not live forever. 

But if he had to pass on, it seems only fitting that a man with a heart the size of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument, would leave us on Valentine’s Day.

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Comments (2)

Professor Gillmor was indeed

Professor Gillmor was indeed an excellent teacher, scholar, and all-around nice guy.

I can't exactly remember why, but when I took the freedom-of-speech course as a grad student at the U of MN J-School in the 90s, it was taught by Ted Glasser, also a wonderful teacher. (I'm guessing it was because Professor Gillmor was on a sabbatical.) We still, of course, used the book that Professor Gillmor co-wrote. It still sits on my bookshelf, but it certainly does not gather dust.

Anyway, I got to know Professor Gillmor fairly well, even though I never took a course from him. But I gleaned plenty of knowledge from him on law, ethics, and the First Amendment -- and their often stressful co-existence -- in outside-the-classroom discussions.

He will be missed.

Quite a teacher

Bill, thanks for that fine tribute. I remember Don's course on media law fondly, though it was very challenging! He demanded a lot from his students but was also very welcoming for a visit in his office -- about school, the campus newspaper or anything else. He was a real asset for the university.