Frank Askin, Fierce Defender of Civil Liberties, Dies at 89

A late bloomer in law school, he founded a constitutional rights clinic to guard against government overreach and was a longtime general counsel at the A.C.L.U.


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Frank Askin, who enrolled in law school when he was 31 and devoted the next 50 years to defending the civil liberties of Americans suspected of being disruptive radicals, died on July 1 at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 89.

The cause was cardiac arrest, his son Jonathan said.

Collaborating with law student volunteers and often with the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Askin won rulings that barred the state police from arbitrarily stopping and searching “longhaired travelers” on public roads during the 1960s; granted protesters the right to distribute leaflets at shopping malls; and required the F.B.I. to purge its investigative files on a 15-year-old high school student who had written to the Socialist Workers Party to gather information for a political science course.

He also won the rights of residents to challenge the rules of their homeowners’ associations and of the homeless to have access to public libraries.

After dropping out of college in Baltimore to become a community organizer and journalist, Mr. Askin was admitted to Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He joined the faculty immediately after graduating in 1966 and taught there for 53 years. He was the founder of the Rutgers Law Constitutional Litigation Clinic (now the Constitutional Rights Clinic).

He also served for 36 years as a general counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, and held the position longer than anyone else in the organization’s history.

Before becoming a lawyer, he wrote in his memoir, “Defending Rights: A Life in Law and Politics” (1997), he “attempted to shape the law by public agitation.”

Once he was armed with a law degree, he added, clients and their causes became the vehicle to “establish or implement legal principles which would have wider social impact.” That included championing racial justice; protecting individuals against harassment by police officers and intrusive government surveillance; and expanding the right to vote.

After he sued on behalf of protesters who had been barred from distributing leaflets denouncing the Persian Gulf war and nuclear proliferation, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in 1994 that privately owned shopping malls must allow leafleting because they had replaced traditional “homes of free speech” like parks and town squares.

“He found creative ways to use intellect, empathy and rigor to outmaneuver the forces seeking to diminish our freedoms,” the New Jersey Civil Liberties Union said in a tribute.

Frank Askin was born on Jan. 8, 1932, in Baltimore to Abraham and Rose (Mervis) Askin. His father, whose family had immigrated from Kiev, owned the tavern in Baltimore’s Hotel Biltmore. His mother’s family came from Latvia when she was 2 years old.

Frank’s first job, when he was 12, was controlling the manual scoreboard for Baltimore’s N.B.A. team, the Bullets, which an uncle owned. After dropping out of the University of Baltimore, he conducted sit-ins to integrate the city’s public tennis courts, ran New Challenge, a left-wing magazine in New York; and worked for The Bergen Evening Record in Hackensack, N.J., where he met his future wife, Marilyn Klein, before being fired for trying to unionize the staff.

In addition to his wife and their son Jonathan, a professor at Brooklyn Law School, Mr. Askin, who lived in Fort Lauderdale, is survived by their other son, Daniel; two grandsons; and a son, Steve, from an earlier marriage, which ended in divorce. A daughter, Andrea, died two years ago.

Mr. Askin earned only 96 credits from the City College of New York, not enough to graduate, but he was nonetheless admitted to Rutgers Law School. In 1966, when he was awarded his law degree, the college gave him a bachelor’s degree simultaneously. At Rutgers, he was a student of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the future United States Supreme Court justice, and later a fellow faculty member.

He founded the Constitutional Litigation Clinic in 1970 to safeguard civil liberties, only to discover later that he had been the subject of government surveillance himself.

In 1982, he mounted a frustrating campaign for the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 11th District against the incumbent, Joseph G. Minish, after spending the “better part of two years and about $60,000 to win 26 percent of the vote,” he wrote in a New York Times opinion article. He ran again in 1986 against the Republican incumbent, Dean Gallo, and was again defeated.

He later received the William Pincus Award, the highest honor conferred by the American Association of Law Schools’ Section on Clinical Legal Education, and the Great Teacher Award from the Society of American Law School Teachers. When he retired in 2016, a wing of Rutgers Law School was named after him and his wife.

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