September 2017 Alum of the Month: William C. "Bill" Newman '68
William C. "Bill" Newman '68 is a partner at the Northampton, MA law firm of Lesser Newman Aleo & Nasser. For more than 30 years he also has served as Director of the Western Regional Law Office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts. In addition, Newman is a teacher, the author and voice of the podcast "Civil Liberties Minute," host of "The Bill Newman Show" on radio, and author of two books, including his 2014 When the War Came Home. He has spent his entire career working for social justice for those who need it most.
Newman entered Hotchkiss as a prep in 1964, only a month after Ernest Gruening, Hotchkiss Class of 1903, made news as one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution escalating U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Although inconsistent academically, (he won the book prize for the best grade in history while at the same time he was flunking Latin), Newman found outlets for his creativity as co-editor of the literary magazine, a writer for the yearbook, president of the Current Events Club, and bass guitarist in a rock 'n' roll band, the Ocelets, among numerous extracurricular activities.
Newman worked in the Greater Opportunity (GO) Program at Hotchkiss as a counselor during the summer between his upper mid and senior year. "It was eye-opening for me to meet and live with these inner-city teenagers. They faced obstacles I couldn't even imagine. They were amazing young people, and that experience changed me."
Relationships with faculty mattered a lot for him. "If you're lucky, you had one teacher in high school who inspired you. My 11th- and 12th-grade English teacher, Blair Torrey, was that person for me. Among the many authors and poets he introduced me to was the beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, because he thought I would love him. My fondest memory happened senior year, right before we were to take the AP exam. The other AP classes were stressed out from cramming, but for our last meeting before the test he took us for a walk around the lake in the moonlight. He thought that for the exam being more in touch with who we were would serve us best. I will always remember that."
When it came time to look at colleges, Newman met with then-college counselor, George Kellogg. "At our meeting Mr. Kellogg said, 'A place like Antioch might want you.' That was a pivotal moment. I was quite sure some colleges would accept me, but it had never occurred to me that a college would actually want me." Meanwhile, the Vietnam War was escalating.
Newman started at Antioch just a few weeks after graduating from Hotchkiss. The College has a work-study program that is central to its educational mission and is, and was, known for its efforts for equality. The first college in the country to admit women and to hire women faculty members on an equal basis with men, Antioch operates 12 months a year, allowing for extensive work experience for its students.
That fall Newman went to New York City to work for a new criminal justice reform organization, the Vera Institute of Justice, and its Court Employment Project, just when his Hotchkiss classmates were starting college. In his job as a screener, Newman reviewed criminal charges, records, and police reports to help determine if defendants, men only, might qualify for the program. "Those men, mostly young, all poor, and overwhelmingly black and Hispanic, had entered a maze from which few escape...I hated seeing people locked up in cages. I still do," Newman expressed years later in When the War Came Home.
When he returned to Antioch a year later with a draft deferment intact, Newman carried with him the lessons of privilege and poverty that he had learned in the New York City jails. He understood that as for the war, "race and class determined who would live and who died."
On May 4, 1970, just a three- and a-half hour drive from Antioch, members of the Ohio National Guard fired 67 rounds from their semi-automatic weapons at Kent State peace demonstrators, killing four and wounding nine more. America's colleges and universities erupted with demonstrations. "Bring The War Home" was a heavily used slogan of the anti-war movement, and the killings at Kent State ironically did just that.
After Kent State, Newman says, "Some days and hours I felt energized, optimistic, and hopeful, but often I felt overwhelmed by a sense of dread." The war would go on for five more years. Between the atrocities in Southeast Asia and the images of courtrooms and holding pens he had seen in New York, Newman decided to "apply to law school to become a criminal defense and civil rights lawyer, and later an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union."
He received his J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law in 1975 and became a partner at Lesser Newman Aleo & Nasser the following year. He made his name as a civil rights and civil liberties lawyer, working to protect First Amendment and reproductive rights and open government. He was one of the defense lawyers representing a group accused of seditious conspiracy. His client was acquitted. He successfully co-counseled the case of a Guantanamo detainee and got a man off Georgia's death row as well. For decades he represented the housekeepers and food service workers union at Smith College and other unions. He is particularly proud of his work on the 1980 Bezio v. Patenaude case, where the sexual orientation of the mother was found irrelevant in a custody dispute. It was the first gay custody case decided by any state's highest court.
Today Newman takes pride in his recent work as co-founder of the ACLUM's Immigrant Protection Project of Western Massachusetts (IPP). IPP is a coordinated regional effort by attorneys and organizations to provide immigrants in Western Massachusetts with needed referrals and legal assistance. The Project emphasizes the fact that everyone in America is entitled to certain basic rights, and its call center is staffed by trained, bilingual volunteer workers.
Newman's firm is rated as an "AV" law firm in the benchmark Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directory, its highest rating. Newman and his partners also are long-time "Massachusetts and New England Super Lawyers." In addition, he has the distinction of being named one of the "Best Lawyers" in America, and U.S. News and World Report regularly selects his law firm for its list of "Best Law Firms in America." Most meaningful to Newman are the awards he received for his work on the Georgia death penalty case and for representing the Guantanamo detainee. In August this year, Newman received the Clarence Darrow Award from the Hampden County Chapter of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty.
When asked for a favorite quote, Newman invoked Frederick Douglass: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will."