John Borger, a pre-eminent First Amendment attorney, died in Minneapolis on December 16, 2019 at 68 years old. In 2018, Borger received the Champion of the First Amendment award from the American Bar Association Forum on Communications Law at its annual conference. Below is the column from Communications Lawyer honoring John Borger.
Chair’s Column: Honoring John Borger—A Champion of the First Amendment
At the Forum’s 2018 Annual Conference, our friend and colleague John Borger was presented with the Champion of the First Amendment award for all of his outstanding achievements throughout his career as a guardian of the First Amendment. Presented below is Steve Zansberg’s glowing introduction of John, followed by John’s inspiring acceptance speech.
Introductory Remarks by Steve Zansberg
It is my honor and privilege to present the ABA Forum’s Champion of the First Amendment award to our colleague and friend John Borger.
I am not going to attempt to chronicle the incredible career of John Borger. Instead, we have provided you all with a copy of his résumé as it appeared on the Faegre Baker Daniels website at the time of his retirement last year. I commend that to you, so you can see and appreciate both the depth and breadth of John’s professional experience.
John is well known to, and much beloved by, many in this room. In fact, when John was nominated to receive this award, some of the newer members of the Forum’s Governing Committee weren’t aware that this award even existed, or what it was for. So, I explained that this award is not something the Forum gives out with any frequency or regularity—indeed, we have bestowed it only twice previously—to Dick Winfield and Jim Goodale—both of whom are “Founding Fathers” of this community of ours, a/k/a the organized “media law bar.” The award is designed to honor those who not only (“merely”) devoted their entire careers to fighting to protect freedom of speech and of the press, but also, and especially, those who have made sustained and significant contributions to the development of this bar (our community). When I finished describing the criteria for the award, the Governing Committee, without further discussion, voted unanimously to bestow it on John.
Prior to becoming a lawyer, John was a journalist—a reporter and then editor-in-chief, at his college paper, The Michigan State News, where he met his fellow budding journalist and later wife (now of forty-three years), Judy. Thus, it was at the early stage of his professional life that John developed two of his three life passions: first and foremost, his family, and second, the fight for freedom of the press.
I had the good fortune to spend the first ten years of my legal career working with John, at Faegre & Benson, and to benefit from his wisdom, counsel, mentoring, and warm friendship. John’s knowledge of First Amendment law is so encyclopedic that during the annual First Amendment/Journalism Jeopardy program, that George Freeman created and emcee’d for so many years at this conference, people entering the lunchroom would jockey for a seat at John’s table in the hopes of sharing the victory.
As many in this room can personally attest, John is, and has always been, incredibly giving of his time and energies—both to his colleagues and peers, and to organizations he joins, including at this Forum, and the Torts, Trial and Insurance Practice Section, where he edited its annual Survey of Media Law for more than a decade.
John is a consummate wordsmith. Leita Walker tells me he once corrected her for misusing the word “decimate” because it means “to smite one in ten of a population,” not, as many of us commonly misunderstand it, to mean to utterly destroy.
John also has a dry sense of humor. He loves to dispense groan-inducing puns. True to form, one of his many law review articles, about misuse of the tort of trespass against the press, was entitled “New Whines in Old Bottles: Taking Newsgathering Torts Off the Food Lion Shelf.”
Not everyone knows this, but John also has a third passion—you might say obsession—he is a fan (which is short for “fanatic”) of superheroes of the DC Comics and Marvel vintage. In 2008, when John and Judy moved out of their big old house into their smaller downtown condo, John donated his personal collection of over 40,000 comic books (valued at well over $100,000, with several “issue no. 1”s in popular series) to the University of Minnesota. The John Philip Borger Comic Books Collection, each volume fully catalogued, now resides in that university library’s permanent repository.
So, in addition to presenting him with yet another ornament to adorn an already crowded trophy wall, we are also presenting him this t-shirt, which recognizes John as Superman of the First Amendment.
Of course, his family—including Judy; their three kids, Nick, Chris, and Jenny (all of whom are with us today); their significant others; and John and Judy’s six grandchildren—also take him as their hero, so long as he doesn’t take to wearing a cape. (“No capes!”)
I will now read for you what the plaque says before inviting John to come up on stage and share a few words. It reads:
For more than four decades of providing wise counsel to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and numerous other members of the press; for passionately and zealously fighting to hold public officials and institutions accountable through transparency; for helping to organize and lead the “media bar,” and for other countless and tireless efforts in support of Freedom of the Press, the ABA Forum on Communications Law hereby honors
as a true
“Champion of the First Amendment”
(Editors’ Note: Steve’s introduction was followed by a thunderous and lengthy standing ovation.)
Champion of Freedom Remarks by John Borger:
Thank you for that generous introduction, Steve. And thank you, Carolyn and members of the Governing Committee and the entire Forum, for this award. It is special because it comes from all of you. The media bar is a community of passionate, intelligent, inquisitive, and collegial lawyers. We are privileged to represent clients who, at their best, are guardians of democracy and persistent seekers of truth in service of justice.
To have a career full of such clients and colleagues has been a blessing far beyond anything I could have predicted in college and law school. Oh, what a time it was. A time of innocence. A time of confidences and possibilities and determination to make the world a better place. Yet also a time of social unrest, and conflicts between young and old, black and white. Young soldiers died in foreign lands, fighting an unpopular war. At home, authorities arrested, gassed, even shot and killed protestors. A presidential election was marred by deep divisions within the Democratic Party and by a Republican candidate engaged in clandestine communications with a foreign power. A president’s name became an epithet. A special prosecutor investigated presidential misconduct. An administration engaged in systematic assaults on the press. Rising to the occasion, The New York Times and the Washington Post, like the Beatles and the Beach Boys, challenged each other to ever-greater achievements. A terrific movie about journalism inspired young reporters and young lawyers. My, the times they’ve been a-changin’.
One change was a long time comin’, but it’s helped us all to be able to carry on. That is the growth of the organized media bar. The creation and development of that bar has not been an accident or a coincidence. It’s the result of hard work by:
- Leaders like First Amendment scholars Thomas Emerson and Don Gillmor.
- Leaders like Floyd Abrams, Dick Winfield, Jim Goodale, Victor Kovner, Bob Sack, Cam DeVore, and Conrad Shumadine, whose PLI conferences provided a platform for this practice to meet nationally and to establish lasting personal relationships.
- Leaders like Larry Worrall and Chad Milton, who understood that insuring news organizations is not the same as insuring cars.
- Like Jack Landau, Jane Kirtley, Lucy Dalglish, and Bruce Brown, at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
- Like Henry Kaufman and Sandy Baron and George Freeman, at the Media Law Resource Center.
- And like Barbara Wall, Lee Levine, Kelli Sager, and George Freeman, who launched and led this very conference 20-some years ago.
We owe them all an enormous debt.
I owe my center and my sanity to the blessings in my personal life: Judy, my wife, my rock, and my sun and stars; my remarkable children Jen and Chris and Nick, whose presence here today makes this truly the room where it happens; and six amazing grandchildren, who blow my world away. With a nod to those grandchildren, I offer this piece of pseudo-Seussian verse: I loved what I did, and I did what I loved; free speech is a First Right, when push comes to shove.
I have carried a torch for the First Amendment for more than 50 years. I hope I lit a few candles along the way. The First Amendment torch now burns with you, and you, and you. Hold it high. The road goes ever on and on. Many important battles lie ahead. But look around the room and know this: You will never, ever, walk alone.