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The Nation

High Court to Hear Case of Cochran's Ex-Client

September 29, 2004|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to hear a dispute involving a disgruntled former client of lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., to decide a potentially significant 1st Amendment question: Can a person who defamed a public figure in the past be forever banned from speaking about him in public in the future?

In 1983, Ulysses Tory asked Cochran to represent him in a suit against the Los Angeles Police Department. When no charges were filed and Cochran failed to win a settlement for him, Tory charged that the lawyer had conspired with the city "to cover up criminal and immoral activities."

He said he would accept a payment of $10 million to "settle" the matter.

Cochran dropped him as a client in 1985.

In the late 1990s, Tory and several supporters picketed outside Cochran's Wilshire Boulevard law offices, carrying signs reading, "Johnnie is a crook, liar and a thief." Tory made more demands for money.

Four years ago, Cochran sued Tory and charged him with defamation and invasion of privacy. Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian agreed in 2002 that Tory's statements were false and malicious.

But rather than award Cochran monetary damages, the judge issued an order that "permanently enjoined" Tory from coming within 300 yards of the lawyer or his places of business. The order also barred Tory from carrying signs "in any public forum" that referred to Cochran or from "orally uttering statements about Cochran or Cochran's law firm."

The California courts upheld the judge's order. But former USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky filed an appeal with the Supreme Court, arguing that the 1st Amendment's free-speech protection does not permit an order "that forever prohibits all future speech ... about an admitted public figure." Chemerinsky now teaches at Duke University.

"This is not a case about peaceful picketers, it is a case about extortion," said Jonathan B. Cole, a Sherman Oaks lawyer representing Cochran.

-- David G. Savage

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