A Conversation with Professor Timothy Zick

  • Professor Timothy Zick
    Professor Timothy Zick  William & Mary Law School Cabell Research Professor of Law Tim Zick is an expert on freedom of speech, specifically First Amendment considerations in public spaces.  Photo by Gretchen Bedell
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By Ami Dodson

First Amendment law has sparked lively discussions in law school classrooms and around the dinner table for generations. William & Mary Law JacketSchool Professor Timothy Zick, a nationally recognized scholar in the field, does not see that changing anytime soon. Though many constitutional norms are well settled, “speakers will always press the limits of tolerance and expressive liberty, and fundamental principles are constantly being tested,” he says. He points to Snyder v. Phelps, which addressed the Westboro Baptist Church’s protests at military funerals, and Citizens United v. FEC, which increased protections for corporate speech, as recent illustrations of First Amendment debate.

The dynamism of free speech has long captured Zick’s interest. “Even before entering the academy I was interested in and wrote about a wide variety of constitutional issues. But I was eventually drawn to the First Amendment, where I have been actively researching, writing, and teaching for the past few years.”

As an undergraduate at Indiana University, where he graduated summa cum laude in 1989, Zick says he spent a great deal of time in the law library, poring over Supreme Court cases and law review articles. He points to Richard Pacelle, a political science professor then at Indiana, as an early role model. “Professor Pacelle had a way of presenting the material in civil liberties and Supreme Court courses that really piqued my interest.”

Zick’s interest in the law increased when his older brother went to law school. Zick remembers reading his brother’s casebooks cover-to-cover before he himself enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center.  “All that pre-reading was helpful on the first day of class, when every one of my professors started cold calling from the end of the alphabet,” Zick jokes. “I have to say that wasn’t very amusing by the fourth class of the day!” But, he adds, “I relished the challenges of that first year of law school and was likely destined to return to the law school classroom – this time on the other side of the podium.” Zick completed his JD at Georgetown with the Francis E. Lucey, S.J. Award for graduating first in his class. 

Though he knew he wanted to be a professor, Zick also felt strongly that he should learn about the practice of law before teaching it to others. Zick spent several years as an associate at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., where he assisted in defending the constitutionality of congressional term limits measures in lower courts and in the Supreme Court.  On that case, one of his assignments was to “research the Tenth Amendment.”  Zick says that assignment, and the term-limits cases in general, confirmed his passion for constitutional law. After working at Williams & Connolly, Zick was an associate at Foley, Hoag & Eliot in Boston, where his work focused mainly on professional and products liability.

Following a clerkship with Judge Levin H. Campbell of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, Zick joined the United States Department of Justice. There, he defended the constitutionality of federal statutes and programs, including the Violence Against Women Act and Children's Internet Protection Act. In 2002, Zick joined the faculty at St. John’s University School of Law, teaching classes on Constitutional Law as well as a seminar on the Supreme Court. He joined William & Mary in 2008 as a Professor of Law and in 2011 was named the Cabell Research Professor of Law -- the same year he received a Plumeri Award for Faculty Excellence.

Zick says he is glad he spent nearly a decade in law practice before turning to academia. “Each position offered something different in terms of professional development and experience,” he notes. “For example, when I first started teaching torts, students had a lot of practical questions about litigation, evidentiary matters, and other ‘real world’ concerns. I was able to answer those directly only because I had encountered such issues in practice. The clerkship and Department of Justice experiences have been similarly useful in terms of teaching and scholarship. In both positions, I encountered a range of legal issues and was able to further develop writing, analytical, and courtroom skills that have all been useful to me as a professor. There are similarities between trial work and classroom teaching, in terms of preparation, flexibility, timing, and presentation.”

It was at St. John’s Law School that Zick began to form the specific research agenda that has shaped his academic career. “When I started teaching the First Amendment,” Zick recalls, “I became very interested in public speech and demonstration issues: the public forum doctrine, the history of social contention and social movements, and the use of public spaces as sites of contest, exchange, and symbolism.”

In his academic career, Zick has published 15 articles and shorter works, including five since he joined William & Mary. He expanded on his research concerning speech and spatiality in his first book, Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places, published by Cambridge University Press in 2009. “After teaching and studying them further, I thought it was time to take a fresh look at the First Amendment doctrines of place, and to apply some inter-disciplinary insights to issues of public assembly and expression,” Zick says.

Other First Amendment scholars, including William & Mary Lee Professor of Law William W. Van Alstyne, recognize Zick’s contributions to the field. “Tim is both an excellent colleague and a prolific scholarly publisher,” notes Van Alstyne, one of the nation’s foremost experts on constitutional law. “From the beginning, he has been one of our most successful faculty, as well as an outstanding colleague, admired by his students, and unstinting in his great service to the school.”

“Tim Zick’s scholarly work on the freedom of speech is important, engaging, and provocative,” adds Richard W. Garnett, Professor and Associate Dean at Notre Dame Law School. “At a time when the conversation about free speech often focuses on (and takes place on) blogs, websites, and social-media platforms, Zick is thoughtfully reminding us of the continuing, central importance for the freedom of speech of the physical places where expression and discussion take place. For free speech to thrive, it is essential that we attend to the places where it can and does occur.”

“William & Mary is unbelievably lucky to have Professor Zick,” says Neil Richards, Professor of Law at Washington University Law School in St. Louis. “He is a leading voice in discussions of freedom of speech – you simply cannot talk about speech or protest in public spaces without starting with Tim’s work. In particular, his book on speech in public places is excellent – relevant, timely, balanced, and erudite.  His commentary on my scholarship has improved my own work, and I’ve learned an enormous amount about the First Amendment from him.”

Zick believes that the next area of contention in First Amendment law will be in new media, including social networks. He points in general to new forms of censorship of Internet expression, as well as new dangers such as the proliferation of hate speech and “cyber harassment.” 

Zick’s research has progressed from local issues of place to broader concerns regarding the intersection of the First Amendment and territorial (international) borders. His upcoming book, The Cosmopolitan First Amendment, will be the first to fully explore this dynamic relationship. In the book, Zick will contend that globalization, digitization, and other international conditions have fundamentally altered the First Amendment’s relationship to territory. He will propose an outward turn that examines what he calls the First Amendment’s “transborder dimension.”  That under-examined, but increasingly important, dimension includes individual rights to enter the country for expressive and associative purposes, to exit for similar purposes, and to communicate across and beyond borders. It also deals with broader concerns regarding the First Amendment’s relationship to foreign legal sources and its posture with respect to foreign legal judgments and international human-rights regimes.  

Like his first book project, Zick believes that The Cosmopolitan First Amendment takes a fresh look at some First Amendment issues that merit much closer attention and a new analytical framework.  “I strive to bring original perspectives to longstanding problems and concepts, and to connect and synthesize what may at first glance seem to be unrelated phenomena in a way that produces clearer (or at least different) answers to fundamental constitutional questions.”

In addition to being a prolific and well-regarded scholar, Zick is also a dedicated teacher. He was voted Professor of the Year by the students at St. John’s law school in 2006, and continues to receive high praise from his students.  Zick says he feels very fortunate that his research and teaching interests overlap. He observes, “I don’t see scholarship and teaching as entirely separate parts of the job. In fact, I think scholarship often informs and improves teaching – and vice versa. Every year I find that my research has produced one or two new insights about the subjects I typically teach. I have also learned much from my constitutional law and First Amendment students over the years. Each class brings different perspectives, passions, and interests to the course. Students bring fresh eyes and ears to material, and that can make you reconsider approaches and arguments.” Although he always strives for clarity in the classroom, Zick finds it most rewarding when students discover complexity – particularly in the Constitution’s text. Once they do, Zick says, students begin to question the Supreme Court’s precedents and its reasoning. “There’s always this moment when students see that they have the tools to doubt, question, and criticize what they have read – even when it has been written by legal legends. That’s precisely the sort of critical analysis we are training students to use when they leave law school.  As important as scholarship is, teaching students to probe, question, and critically analyze issues is what is most rewarding about the job.”            

Zick is enthusiastic about teaching his law school courses, and also enjoys working with Richmond-area high school debate students who participate in an annual First Amendment competition. “It would be terrific,” he says, “if some of these students were sitting in my First Amendment class in a few years.”


To read an excerpt from Professor Timothy Zick's article “Falsely Shouting Fire in a Global Theater: Emerging Complexities of Trans-Border Expression” (Vanderbilt Law Review, forthcoming 2012), please click here.

To read an excerpt from Professor Timothy Zick's article “Territoriality and the First Amendment: Free Speech at – and Beyond – Our Borders” (Notre Dame Law Review 2010), please click here.