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April 10, 2014

Honoring Newt

by Dan Rodriguez

Last night we orchestrated a surprise for Newton N. Minow, JD ’50. Lured to a reception at Sidley Austin LLP’s Chicago offices (where he is Senior Counsel) under false pretenses, Newt arrived to discover it was in fact a surprise party in his honor—to thank him for his many contributions to American political discourse, to First Amendment jurisprudence, to legal education and practice; and to announce the creation of the Newton N. Minow Professorship at Northwestern Law.

This new named chair was made possible by a remarkable group of people: personal friends, fellow alumni, and Sidley Austin colleagues. Together, they donated gifts totaling $4 million to create an endowment for a new named professorship in his honor. The gifts also establish the Newton N. Minow Debates, which will bring together outside experts, law school faculty, and students to debate important and timely legal topics.

Newt’s contributions to public and civic life in the United States are extraordinary. Appointed by President Kennedy, Newt served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s. In 1961 he gave a speech that became famous for his criticism of television as a “vast wasteland.” Not one to merely criticize, Newt set about improving broadcast communications in an astonishing variety of ways. While at the FCC he actively promoted the implementation of communication satellite technology at a time when most people had almost no understanding of that technology. He was instrumental in the creation of the All-Channels Act, legislation passed by Congress in 1961 that made more of the broadcast spectrum available to the public. One result of this was public educational programming, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that without Newt there would be no Big Bird.

In the 1970s he served as chairman and director of the Public Broadcasting Service. In 1976, Newt and two other Northwestern Law grads, Henry Geller, JD ’49, and Richard Wiley, JD ’58, reintroduced televised Presidential debates (an idea that was originally launched in 1960 but had, in the intervening years, fallen on hard political times) and worked with the FCC to change the rules so that these important public information events could be broadcast. Their efforts paid off and the debates began again, starting with Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford in 1976. Newt even co-chaired the 1976 and 1980 debates. (For an interesting article about the history of these debates, check out “TV Debates: The Heart of the Presidential Race.”)

The Presidential debates have become an important part of the American political process, and they provided the inspiration for the idea to honor his legacy further by creating a permanent debate program here at Northwestern Law.

Newt identified a problem and then worked diligently, systematically, and effectively to address it. This combination of astute analysis and creative problem solving is what makes him such an effective attorney. He is also a friend and mentor to many generations of lawyers. The fact that the endowment is funded by a consortium of Newt’s personal friends and colleagues illustrates the strength of these relationships. I extend my thanks to them, and to Newt, for their many contributions!

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