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Stanley Godofsky, lawyer involved in Pentagon Papers case, dies at 88

Stanley Godofsky, a lawyer who helped write U.S. Supreme Court briefs in two of the most celebrated freedom-of-the-press and First Amendment cases of recent times, died March 6 at a hospital in Boca Raton, Florida. He was 88.

The cause was complications from a liver infection, said a son, David Godofsky. A longtime resident of New York, he lived most recently in Boca Raton.

Godofsky was a member of a firm that had long represented The Washington Post and was an author of one of the briefs that prevailed in the 1971 Pentagon Papers case.

The case involved Nixon administration efforts to halt publication by The Post and the New York Times of a secret multi-volume history of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

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In ruling 6 to 3 against the government, the high court said the government had not met the “heavy burden” required to justify “prior restraint,” the suppression of news or information before it was published as opposed to legal action taken after publication.

“He was a very imaginative and capable litigator” and “clearly made a contribution” to the Supreme Court brief, Anthony “Tony” Essaye, another of the lawyers who represented the newspaper, said in an interview.

In addition to Godofsky and Essaye, the brief also carried the names of Roger Clark, Leo Larkin Jr. and William Glendon. Glendon presented the oral argument.

In another effort in behalf of The Post Co., Godofsky helped submit a “friend of the court” brief in the case known as New York Times v. Sullivan. The Times had been sued by an Alabama official who said he had been libeled in an advertisement about a civil rights demonstration.

The 1964 Supreme Court ruling in that case essentially halted efforts to use the law of libel against media organizations trying to provide vigorous coverage of public issues and public figures.

Over decades of practice with the firm long known as Rogers & Wells, Godofsky handled litigation of various sorts, but his First Amendment efforts drew the most attention. He wrote widely and spoke about the cases and about First Amendment guarantees.

In a law review paper, he wrote that the essence of the Pentagon Papers case was that “the government failed in its attempt to stop the presses.” Thereafter, he wrote, government would “think long and hard before it again rushes off to court” to stop publication of political information.

The Times v. Sullivan ruling has appeared to irritate many who claim it makes it all but impossible to recover damages from the media for anything said about them. But eliminating that opportunity, Godofsky once wrote, was part of the price for leaving the press free to do its job.

Stanley Godofsky was born in New York City on May 24, 1928. He was a 1949 graduate of Columbia University and a 1951 graduate of Columbia Law School.

According to his son, he was first in his law school class and his hiring at what was then Dwight, Royall, Harris, Koegel & Caskey was an “experiment” for a firm that previously was without Jewish partners. He was partner at what was later known as Rogers & Wells from 1961 until his retirement in 1989. (The firm later merged into Clifford Chance.)

His first wife, the former Elaine Weiss, died in 1994 after 41 years of marriage. Survivors include his wife of 16 years, Phyllis Shaevitz Godofsky of Boca Raton; two children from his first marriage, David Godofsky of Oakton, Virginia, and Jenice Spicer of Reston, Virginia; a sister; and six grandchildren.

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