Steven Hull Shiffrin, Charles Frank Reavis Sr. Professor of Law at Cornell Law School, died on Memorial Day, most likely from lung cancer. He had wonderful support from dedicated health-care workers, especially Dr. Ann Costello, her team, and Anne Reilley. He is survived by his wife of forty-three years, Neesa Levine, his three children, Seana (Amirvala), Benjamin (Jiwon), and Jacob (Sarah), and his grandchildren Madeline, Noah, Sareena, Shane, and Yohan.
Described by many colleagues as a titan among First Amendment scholars and the “progressive conscience” of the Cornell Law School, Shiffrin’s career path was winding and unusual. His father William Shiffrin was a talent agent and his mother Helen Johnston, a former model. Steve and his siblings, Lucy and Chris, grew up in a smoke and alcohol drenched home of fiercely negotiated deals, high-strung celebrities, and raucous Hollywood parties.
His high school transcript is peppered with Cs and Ds, perhaps because his focus was on the baseball diamond – perfecting a wicked knuckleball. A sprained finger derailed his pitching career, so he channeled his competitive spirits into the Loyola University Debate program. Through debate, he met his first wife Mary Valentine, and won many tournaments and friends with his rapier intellect and mischievous humor. His transcript barely improved but his debate acumen got him into grad school at UCLA. While pursuing a doctorate in communication, he taught as a communication professor and debate coach at Memphis State University and San Fernando Valley State College (now Cal State Northridge). He abandoned his doctoral studies to attend Loyola Law School as a night student. Although he was initially rejected for admission, he graduated first in his class and served as chief editor of the law review. This led to a federal clerkship with Judge Warren Ferguson and a job at Irell and Manella. After an amicable divorce, he married Neesa Levine and taught at UCLA Law School for ten years before moving to Cornell Law in 1987 with Neesa and their two sons.
He read widely across law, political theory, philosophy, anthropology, theology, political science, thrillers, mysteries, and bridge strategy. His terrific breadth produced path-breaking books and articles about free speech theory, defamation, government speech, commercial speech, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state. He also collaborated on one of the leading constitutional law casebooks, celebrated for its academic thoroughness and diverse sources. His work emphasized the central importance of dissent, but also the folly of searching for a single organizing free speech principle. Nearly every week, he would declare “To have a system is to lack integrity,” attributing this (loosely) to Nietzsche.
Steve pushed the absent-minded-professor aesthetic to its furthest frontiers. He did not care to wear suits, shave, file, or clean his ant-infested car. He thrived, however, on social interaction. He was a magnetic teacher, underscoring his lectures with theatrical gesticulations. He forged connection after connection with students, colleagues, friends, and strangers by asking questions of people, one by one, to figure out what they thought and cared about. And, there was his fantasy baseball crew, his bridge partners, the “Counter Culture” at Moosewood Restaurant. In many corners, he was known less as a towering intellect and more as a kind soul.
He was invested in politics and his academic, local, and national communities. He wrote regularly for the ReligiousLeftLaw blog and authored many amicus briefs on free speech, religion, and LGBTQ+ issues; at Memphis State, his controversial invitations of free speech advocates to campus in the civil rights era made the news; he helped to integrate the debate squad and to found the Africana Studies Department at Northridge; he served as President of the Board of both the Ithaca City School District and the local non-profit Loaves and Fishes. After retirement, he trained as a criminal defense attorney, doing pro bono and assigned counsel work that included the defense of pacifists arrested for their protests of the drone strike operations conducted at the Air Force base near Syracuse.
Steve had enormous enthusiasm for family, friends, colleagues, students, food, religious inquiry, and Elton John. Steve could be a sharp and discerning critic, yet he had a soft spot for sentimentality in film and music. (We’re talking Celine Dion here.)
Steve will be sorely missed, especially by his wife and children to whom he was sweetly devoted. Donations in his memory may be made to Loaves and Fishes, 210 N. Cayuga Street, Ithaca, NY 14850, Doctors without Borders, or Action Against Hunger.