Professor Lili Levi: The Listener


Lili LeviProfessor Lili Levi got into law because of a rented refrigerator.

It’s a far cry from where her interests have taken her, as a professor of business associations, communications law, copyright law, media law, and international copyright law; and as author of numerous papers examining the rules, regulations and their rapidly evolving role in affecting media in modern society.

Before she first contemplated studying law, she was a philosophy major interested in metaphysics who discovered “there was not a job to be had.”

“This was the heyday of analytic philosophy,” she said, “and I knew that I didn’t want to be an itinerant professor going from visiting assistant professorship to visiting assistant professorship.”

Then she rented the refrigerator. It came with a consumer contract.

“I had graduated from Bryn Mawr College with the highest honors,” she said, “and I couldn’t understand a word of this contract. There is a very real disconnect here when highly educated people who go to elite schools, get a good education, and work hard to get good grades read a contract with real legal consequences and cannot understand a word. I caught a glimpse of the entirely different, but incredibly powerful, language in which law operates.”

It was not the first new language Levi took it upon herself to master. First came English.

Born in Istanbul, Levi moved to Manhattan when she was ten years old.

“I had never seen an escalator. I had never seen a TV. They did not have either yet in Istanbul,” she said.

The family settled into the New York City’s Inwood neighborhood in Upper Manhattan.

“What I loved about my neighborhood was that it was quintessentially a very diverse community of immigrants. There were mostly Dominicans and Germans and so on,” she said. “And even though we did not share a language, the grandparents all sat on the stoop and watched out for us as we were going home. We were all obviously latchkey children. Our parents didn’t have nannies watching us 24/7. So our neighborhood was our safe place. All these little old ladies, no matter where they came from, used to sit on these aluminum folding beach chairs on the front stoop, sometimes holding umbrellas over their heads, and keep watch as we walked back from school. It was very different from my childhood in Istanbul, but a wonderful place to grow up.”

Her father, a physician, and her mother, a hospital administrator, went to work. Levi went to a language school of her own making, at home.

“I learned English by watching Walter Cronkite. Camp wasn’t an option, so I sat in our air-conditioned apartment and watched TV. The people with the clearest accents were, of course, the news announcers.”

She went after a general liberal arts education in undergraduate school, found some inspirational professors, started reading the Socratic dialogues, and “fell in love with ancient Greek philosophy.” She also discovered jazz and blues, which she played as a DJ at the college station.

After graduation came the realization that her philosophy degree wasn’t going to give her an occupation, at least not immediately, “so I started thinking a little more practically.”

She went to Harvard Law.

“I think I went into law studies kind of cluelessly,” she said, “because I thought it would be interesting and intellectually engaging, but I didn’t know much else about the law. Some of law school was so profoundly engaging and so profoundly changed the way I thought about things, I thought maybe academics was a place I was ultimately headed. Still, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do when I left law school, and I wanted to have some practical experience before trying to teach.”

She went to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in New York, by then a venerable 100-year-old firm which proudly proclaims on its website: “Each of the three women serving on the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 began her career as a summer associate at Paul, Weiss.”

Levi worked on the sugar antitrust litigation, among other things, and felt drawn to legal writing—so much so that she penned a “practice-oriented antitrust manual” with one of the partners during her time there. But, she said, “when one of the senior partners made fun of me for having a footnote in a brief I wrote for him, I realized I was not long for the world of brief-filing.”

She heard of an opening at CBS, and moved into the governmental affairs section of the network’s legal department in 1983.

She worked on FCC matters, including a challenge to the fairness doctrine. “It was a great, heady, wonderful time,” she said. “And I really, really, developed an interest there in the FCC and broadcast regulation.”

Then she went to her five-year law school reunion and sat in on a class a friend was teaching.

“She gave one of the very best classes I had ever seen in law school,” Levi said. “I was just spellbound. I wanted to raise my hand.”

Her friend, Kathleen Sullivan, later went on to be dean at Stanford Law School and the first woman name partner at the prestigious multinational firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan. Sullivan offered Levi some life-changing advice.

“She said, ‘You know, this is the best job in the world. You should really try to do this,’” Levi said.

Levi listened. She started at Miami Law in 1987 and has been here ever since, dedicating her time to the classroom and pursuing pressing legal issues in her papers.

She has produced scholarship on “The Problem of Trans-national Libel,” examining the chilling effect of forum shopping in the age of the global Internet, on the transformative nature of social networking in “Social Media and the Press,” and on ways of improving children’s educational television in “A ‘Pay or Play’ Experiment to Improve Children’s Educational Television.” She also has returned repeatedly to the theme of the FCC’s regulation of indecency, including the provocatively titled “‘Smut and Nothing But’: The FCC, Indecency, and Regulatory Transformations in the Shadows.”

Her most recent work examines “the siren call of ‘native advertising’—a new marketing technique for unobtrusively integrating paid advertising into editorial content.”

“I think that it is profoundly dangerous,” she said. “If publishers are going to breach the ‘church-state divide’ between advertising and editorial so obviously, it will undermine independent accountability journalism and serve as an invitation to a court that doesn’t want to continue affording the press any special status, whether rhetorically or otherwise, the hook on which to hang its rejection of the special democratic role of the press.”

She’s looking ahead to papers on “big data” journalism and on the impact of the growth of the “entrepreneurial individual journalist” such as bloggers on the interpretation of constitutional protections historically extended to more traditional, institutional media.

“There’s this big debate right now about whether or not the Press Clause of the First Amendment affords any kind of special treatment to journalists,” she said. “How can you distinguish what the function of the press is? How do you identify the press? Is it by institution? Is it by function?”

It’s clear that as the disruptive environment of the Internet continues to redefine mass media, there will be no shortage of avenues to examine, Levi said, in the world and the classroom.

“What I’m interested in intellectually is media and information policy, which are always changing. But what that means is that I too have to change. My ideas have to change. I have to be culturally and legally aware. So all the stuff that my students are bringing into class is grist for my mill, too. It’s not just that I’m teaching them, but they’re teaching me also, every day, about the cultural and technological contexts I need to understand.”