In December, Penn Law lost a professor whose intellectual prowess was matched only by his compassion and devotion to social justice. C. Edwin Baker, the Nicholas F. Gallicchio Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, died unexpectedly on Dec. 8, 2009, at the age of 62. A leading scholar in constitutional law and communications law, Baker was a soft-spoken yet powerful advocate for his liberal theory of the First Amendment and free speech.
Baker was well-known for his "liberty theory" of the First Amendment's right to free speech. He argued against the more common "marketplace of ideas" model of the First Amendment, which values free speech for its benefit to society, and instead focused on free speech's value to the individual regardless of whether it helps achieve a collective good. After Baker's theory became widely known, "no serious legal discussion of the First Amendment theory could fail to grapple with Ed's work," said colleague Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor of Law.
Just as important was Baker's recent commentary on the newspaper industry. Last year he spoke to a Congressional subcommittee on the danger to democracy posed by the layoffs of journalists and the closure of many daily papers, and wrote an essay requesting a federal tax credit to help newspapers hire more journalists.
Not only do a newspaper's readers benefit from a well-staffed newsroom, he argued, but even those who don't read the paper benefit from the corruption it exposes, the attention it draws to certain societal problems, and the degree to which it creates a better informed voting public. Baker "saw the role of press in society as a necessary element in creating an informed public and in empowering individuals to perform their civic roles," said Monroe Price, director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School. "For him, media institutions had to be subject to social adjustment to make sure their functions could be performed."
Baker started teaching law in 1972 as an assistant professor at the University of Toledo Law School. He spent seven years at the University of Oregon Law School until he began teaching at Penn Law in 1981 as a visiting professor. In 1986, he was named the Nicholas F. Gallicchio Professor of Law.
According to Kreimer, Baker's work "was fueled by profound concerns for the way real people live their lives." In 1987, for example, he served as the very first scholar-in-residence at the American Civil Liberties Union, in an effort to bring First Amendment theory to First Amendment practice.
Baker's noteworthy concern for others is also illustrated by a story his sister tells. When Baker was 18, according to Nancy Baker, professor at the Fielding Graduate University, he was set on going to Mississippi to help register voters. But he had diabetes, and his father warned him that it would be too risky to make such a long trip. According to Ms. Baker, their father explained to Baker that "the need to get Ed to food or insulin might place others in the untenable position of either getting back on the road when it was too dangerous to be there, because the Klan was roaming, or letting Ed die due to complications of diabetes, for which they might also be blamed." It wasn't the risk to his own life that stopped him from going, in other words, but instead "the concern for the safety or well being of others," said Ms. Baker.
As committed as Baker was to his scholarly work, which Price said he used as a "mantle to help be an architect of a more democratic world," he was also just as dedicated to teaching. Regina Austin, William A. Schnader Professor of Law, who rode the same train from Greenwich Village to Philadelphia as he did, said she'd often find Baker in the café car working on that day's classes. "Penn Law lost a teacher of commitment and insight," Kreimer said.
In spite of all he accomplished as a scholar, an activist, and a teacher, and the four books and many articles he authored, he was always humble and unpretentious. "As one of his colleagues put it," his sister explained, "in a world full of people whose egos are bigger than their accomplishments, Ed was one of those rare people whose accomplishments were greater than his ego." His loss will echo far beyond the halls of Penn Law. As Dean and Bernard G. Segal Professor of Law Michael Fitts said, "Generations of lawyers benefited from his insights, his high expectations, and his caring approach to everyone around him. His death is a great loss to the Penn Law community as well as for the larger community of academicians and practitioners focused on free speech, the media and human rights."
He is survived by his sister, Nancy Baker; Nancy's spouse, Cathy Hauer; his seven first cousins; and his girlfriend, Jennifer Mathews.