By Andrea Strong '94
AFTER 40 YEARS OF TEACHING at Brooklyn Law School, Professor Joel Gora, who has made significant contributions to the complex body of First Amendment law, said he still finds inspiration and joy in his work.
“The beauty of it is that the law is always changing, so the conversations change every year,” he said.
“Professor Gora has remained a constant in my law school career since the very first day,” said Shelby Anderson ’19, notes editor of the Brooklyn Law Review. “As a professor, he not only taught the class in an involved and meaningful way, but he really tried to get to know his students. His brilliance and expertise are only half of the reason I’ve decided to take two of his classes this semester—his kindness and genuine desire to help his students learn is what keeps me signing up for classes with Professor Gora.”
A native of Brooklyn, Gora was raised in Los Angeles and was the first person in his immediate family to attend college. He graduated from Pomona College and then attended Columbia Law School, where he served as a summer intern at the ACLU. There he worked on several civil liberties cases, including a landmark Supreme Court case, In Re Gault, which established that constitutional due process safeguards had to be applied in juvenile delinquency proceedings. After graduating in 1967, he spent two years as pro se law clerk at the Second Circuit and then returned to the ACLU as a staff attorney.
The decade Gora spent at the ACLU put him on the front lines of the battle for civil liberties and civil rights. He worked on some of the most high-profile First Amendment cases in Supreme Court history—the Pentagon Papers case in 1971 and the 1976 landmark campaign finance case Buckley v. Valeo. In that latter case, he was one of the attorneys who argued before the high court and persuaded it to strike down limits on political spending by individuals as a violation of the First Amendment. Approximately 100 Supreme Court cases and 10 years later, shortly after the birth of his daughter, Gora fulfilled a longtime professional dream of going into teaching.
He joined Brooklyn Law School in 1978, teaching civil procedure, civil liberties, and constitutional law. Gora created several classes at the Law School in the wake of landmark Supreme Court decisions, including Election Law, in the wake of Bush v. Gore; and Campaign Finance Law, after Citizens United; as well as seminars in First Amendment and Constitutional Litigation. He also served as associate dean for academic affairs from 1993 through 1997 and again from 2002 through 2006.
Over the years, Gora remained a volunteer lawyer for the ACLU as its campaign finance counsel, filing briefs challenging the McCain-Feingold Law, and working on Citizens United, the 2010 decision that did away with campaign spending limits for corporations and unions and nonprofit organizations like the ACLU. A supporter of the decision, Gora understands that his position may be seen by many liberals as curious; indeed, the Democratic Party has called for a constitutional amendment to overturn the decision. But he doesn’t agree.
“The Court’s decisions are very consistent with core principles of the First Amendment, which I defended as a young ACLU lawyer,” he said. “Where I come from, having the government decide what you can say about government and politics is not good for democracy.”
Gora has written and spoken extensively on the topic, including in his article “Free Speech Matters: The Roberts Court and the First Amendment” for the Journal of Law and Policy (2016). This article was part of the proceedings of the Law School’s Free Speech Symposium, which he helped organize and which was named the best scholarly conference of 2016 by First Amendment blog Concurring Opinions.
When he is not teaching or defending the First Amendment, Gora relishes spending time with his wife, Ann Ray Martin, a former Newsweek editor; his daughter, Susannah; his son-in-law, Zach; and his granddaughter, May. Widely admired by his colleagues, Gora was the reason Professor Susan Herman, president of the ACLU, decided to join the Law School faculty. “He told me, very persuasively, that he liked coming to work every day,” she said. “It’s been apparent for 40 years that Joel Gora very much likes his job, his students, and his vocation as a constitutional law scholar. We’ve all benefited from his dedication.”