Steven Swander, a champion of free speech, dies at 61

The First Amendment community recently lost an excellent lawyer and an even better human being with the recent death of Fort Worth, Texas-based attorney Steven H. Swander. Known to his colleagues as a “gentle giant,” Swander died on Nov. 24 at age 61.

Born in 1951 in Burbank, Calif., Swander earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California and his law degree from Baylor University.

Swander, who had practiced law in Texas since 1976, recently served as the president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association, a group devoted to free-speech issues.

“With the death of Steve Swander, the legal community has lost a great champion of constitutional rights,” said Wayne Giampietro, a Chicago-based attorney and mainstay in FALA. “More importantly, we have all lost a good friend. Steve recently completed a term as president of the First Amendment Lawyers Association. That he was elected to that position by fellow attorneys who work to protect constitutional rights of freedom of speech and association is in itself a testament to his reputation among his peers.

“He was a first-rate attorney who championed those rights in a state where those rights were under constant attack,” Giampietro added. “He was one of the best attorneys I have been privileged to meet. He was a leader in that organization, respected by everyone he met.”

Swander regularly delivered presentations at FALA meetings on licensing and zoning issues — often with the skilled Gary Edinger, who practices law in Gainesville, Fla.

Swander represented many clients in the adult-entertainment industry — a difficult area to practice given that such businesses are a politically popular target. In 1995 he prevailed in an interesting zoning case involving a client who had obtained a license to operate an adult business under the name “the Executive Room.” His client had spent more than $100,000 to remodel the property before learning the night before opening that the license was revoked because the business was within 1,000 feet of a church. According to city officials, the “church” was located within the Bowie County Correctional Center, a prison.

Swander successfully convinced a federal district court judge that the religious services in the prison did not qualify as a church under the city’s zoning law. Swander pointed out that family members were not allowed to participate in the worship services and that city officials weren’t even aware of the worship services. The judge agreed in Hooters, Inc. v. City of Texarkana, 897 F.Supp. 946 (E. D. Tex. 1995), writing that “nobody involved in this dispute, including representatives of the city, was even aware of any religious activity taking place” at the prison.

In another case — MDII Entertainment v. Dallas (5th Cir. 1994)—– Swander successfully challenged parts of an ordinance that prohibited businesses offering semi-nude dancing from using certain terms in their advertising, such as “gentleman’s club.” The federal appeals court noted that “the city relied on no studies showing a link between advertising and property values or crime.”

“His work in the ‘real’ world was far from abstract,” Edinger said. “Steve actively litigated some of the toughest First Amendment issues for unpopular clients before very unsympathetic courts. Strip clubs are simply not the ‘sexiest’ of clients when you are litigating before a skeptical federal judge. Steve was particularly skilled at identifying arcane legal attacks (sometimes using state constitutional protections) which were overlooked by other attorneys.”

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