Cornell Law School mourns the passing of Steve Shiffrin, the Charles Frank Reavis Sr. Professor of Law, Emeritus, who died May 29 in Ithaca at the age of 82. A renowned legal scholar and advocate, Shiffrin was widely recognized for his contributions to the field of constitutional law, particularly the First Amendment. His towering intellect and unwavering commitment to defending freedom of speech have left an indelible mark on the legal community and beyond.
“Steve was a friend to so many on this campus, in Ithaca, and across the world, where his writings and teachings on constitutional law enjoyed a wide and enthusiastic readership,” said Jens David Ohlin, Allan R. Tessler Dean & Professor of Law. “He will be sorely missed by his family, his colleagues, his students, his pro bono clients, and by all who encountered his subtle thinking, his warmth and generosity, and his kind heart.”
Described as a “true intellectual” and a “genuinely original thinker,” Shiffrin’s approach to the First Amendment was characterized by his deep understanding of dissent and its crucial role in promoting justice and equality. He believed that dissenting speech should be given special prominence in any discussion of free-speech values, as it serves as a powerful tool to challenge existing injustices and oppressive systems.
In his influential books, including Dissent, Injustice, and the Meanings of America and What’s Wrong with the First Amendment?, Shiffrin examined the complexities of free speech and critiqued the Supreme Court’s approach to balancing freedom of speech with other important values. He argued against the overprotection of certain types of speech, such as harmful commercial and hate speech, while emphasizing the need to safeguard the speech of dissenters and marginalized communities.
“Steve was a towering figure in First Amendment law, but he was so much more than that,” says Michael C. Dorf, Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law. “He was a profoundly moral but never moralistic person.” Dorf notes that after Shiffrin “took emeritus status—and even as he continued to write influential books and articles—he undertook a course of study to train himself to represent indigent clients in the local courts.”
Steve’s career in law teaching spanned over four decades, with his tenure at Cornell Law School beginning in 1987. Prior to his time at Cornell, he had already established himself as a distinguished professor at the University of California–Los Angeles School of Law, where he taught and wrote about First Amendment rights for ten years. It was during this period that he honed his teaching skills and shaped his ideas, laying the foundation for his groundbreaking work in the field.
Steve’s impact extended far beyond the classroom and the written page. He was renowned for his generosity, compassion, and unwavering support for his students and colleagues. His dedication to teaching was evident in his interactive approach, challenging his students to think critically and question their own positions. He created an inclusive and engaging environment that fostered meaningful dialogue and intellectual growth. Colleagues and former students remember him as a mentor who went above and beyond, offering guidance and support both inside and outside the academic realm.
Beyond his scholarly achievements, Steve Shiffrin’s commitment to social justice extended to his advocacy work. He actively participated in public discourse through his blog, ReligiousLeftLaw, and represented indigent defendants in criminal court.
“Steve was as generous as he was brilliant,” said Beth Lyon, associate dean for Experiential Education and Clinical Program director, who noted how he organized Cornell Law faculty to staff a legal outreach table at the Loaves and Fishes community kitchen every week for many years.
“To say he was tireless in his support for this work would be an understatement,” said Lyon. “Steve was recruiter, member, leader, cheerleader, administrator, and counsel to the program well into the pandemic, and long after his health began to decline. No one could say no to such a kind and selfless colleague, and because of Steve’s efforts, the faculty provided hundreds (probably thousands) of hours of free legal services to Ithaca’s lowest income residents over many years. Steve brought out the best in us.”
Shiffrin is survived by his wife Neesa, daughter Seana, and sons Jacob and Benjamin. A memorial service will be planned for this fall for Cornell colleagues and Ithaca friends to remember and honor him.
Professor Michael C. Dorf, dear friend and colleague of Steve Shiffrin, shares a personal remembrance here.