Industry Attorney, Free Speech Champion Clyde DeWitt Passes Away at 75

Industry Attorney, Free Speech Champion Clyde DeWitt Passes Away at 75

LAS VEGAS — Noted industry attorney Clyde DeWitt passed away on Friday in Las Vegas at 75, according to friends and colleagues.

DeWitt told XBIZ last month that he had been diagnosed with untreatable, metastatic lymphatic and lung cancer and was on hospice care at his home in Las Vegas. He also shared that, even under those circumstances, he was “still working a little.”

A First Amendment champion with a storied career, DeWitt was considered a trustworthy, gentlemanly advisor by many veteran industry stakeholders.

DeWitt grew up in Chicago and attended the University of Houston in Texas, where he eventually joined the district attorney’s office as a prosecutor.

Seven years later, in 1979, DeWitt was general counsel to the DA in Houston and was assigned to defend against a challenge to a new Texas statute that “dramatically souped up Texas obscenity laws,” he recalled. During that case, he met Beverly Hills attorney John Weston, one of the founders of the First Amendment Lawyers Association (FALA).

The two struck up a friendship, which led to DeWitt setting up what he called “a sort of branch office in Houston for John’s Beverly Hills law firm” in 1980.

Through FALA, DeWitt became part of a group of attorneys that defended the First Amendment and repeatedly prevented federal and state governments from instituting forms of censorship, particularly of adult content. The group, which DeWitt recently referred to as “the old guard,” included Weston, Paul Cambria, Art Schwartz, Yale Freeman, Steve Beckett and others.

In 1983, Weston and DeWitt teamed up to challenge an obscenity conviction in Texas. The Court of Criminal Appeals struck down as unconstitutional the same statute that the federal court had refused to strike down when DeWitt was defending it as a DA a few years earlier.

In 1985, DeWitt relocated to Los Angeles, where he remained an FALA stalwart, eventually becoming president in 1991 and serving as a board member for decades thereafter. His period of activity coincided with an orchestrated attempt by the Reagan administration to take down the entire adult industry, spearheaded by controversial Attorney General Ed Meese.

“During the late 1980s and early ’90s, all hell broke loose in the wake of the 1986 Meese Commission Report,” DeWitt remembered, as he recalled a number of “operations” launched by the DOJ against the adult sector.

“As John Weston emphasized in a speech in the late 1990s after enumerating all of the anti-porn crusaders who had failed, given up or, in one case, been sent to prison: ‘We’re still here — and they’re not!’” DeWitt added.

After a lull in obscenity prosecutions in the 1990s, during the George W. Bush administration, a few new cases arose, some even going into full prosecutions.

“Always FALA members at the defense table,” DeWitt proudly noted.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, DeWitt began developing a client base of his own, and his practice continued to grow, eventually becoming the Los Angeles firm of Weston, Garrou, DeWitt & Walters.

DeWitt handled some of the most significant adult industry cases of the period, including a series of lawsuits on behalf of University Books and Videos from 1996 until 2001 that resulted in the defeat of an unconstitutional Dade County ordinance that would have eliminated all adult bookstores and entertainment in the Miami area.

“By the mid-2000s, I began to conclude that neither Weston, Garrou, DeWitt & Walters nor Los Angeles was where I wanted to ‘play the back nine,’” he shared. “I took the Nevada bar exam in 2006 and, to my surprise, passed the nation’s most difficult bar exam on the first try. By 2009, I had left the firm and bought a house in Las Vegas, where I have practiced ever since. I took up golf at age 64.

“Representing this industry has been a joy and a rare privilege,” DeWitt told XBIZ last month. “Really as rewarding a career as I can imagine. I don’t regret a minute of it!”

DeWitt’s friends told XBIZ that he had felt especially honored to be able to read last month’s article celebrating his legacy before passing.

Colleagues Honor DeWitt’s Legacy

Longtime colleague Paul Cambria told XBIZ that DeWitt “was a gentle giant for free speech.”

“We lost a great guy and a great lawyer,” Cambria reflected.

Gill Sperlein, current president of FALA, told XBIZ, “On a personal level, Clyde was a dear friend, mentor and hero. I will miss his humor, his guidance, his stories and most of all his friendship.”

FALA released a statement honoring DeWitt’s legacy, referring to him as “our esteemed and beloved long-time member, friend, colleague, Past President, Past National Chair, and First Amendment advocate extraordinaire.”

“Clyde DeWitt was a true renaissance man, with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering, an MBA, and a law degree, and — as befits someone with that background — his law practice was remarkably diverse, including copyright and trademark issues, and general entertainment and business law, as well as the many First Amendment cases in which he made his national mark,” the statement reads. “We all repeatedly benefitted from Clyde’s breadth of knowledge as he would so often guide us with important practical advice, that would get right to the heart of the matter, in otherwise esoteric discussions of the finer points of constitutional law.

The organization pointed out that “quite heroically, even as he was losing his last health battle, Clyde was the principal author of the FALA’s amicus brief in Gilliam v. Gerragamo, the current Tennessee ‘Personalized License Plate’ case, and his motion to be admitted in Tennessee pro hac vice was pending as he passed away.”

DeWitt, the FALA statement concluded, was “perhaps best known for his engaging public speaking style, that led him to be described as ‘the Will Rogers of the adult industry’ — a well-earned sobriquet. Once you heard Clyde speak, you never forgot him — and we, who were primary beneficiaries of not only his style but his wit, wisdom, friendship and leadership, never will.”

Lawrence Walters of Walters Law Group told XBIZ that DeWitt’s passing “is another monumental loss for the community of First Amendment lawyers and for the adult industry that he so staunchly defended.

“Clyde was a mentor, former partner and close friend for many years,” Walters added. “He recruited me to join Weston, Garrou, & DeWitt — later known as Weston, Garrou, DeWitt & Walters in 2001. We litigated many cases together and he approached every battle without fear. I noticed his Chicago accent and swagger when we first met, and we shared countless stories about our hometown. He and his wife, Cherie, showed our family great kindness and his home in LA was always open when I visited. His parties were unforgettable. Clyde was a legend in the adult industry and I’m eternally grateful our paths crossed.”

Corey Silverstein of Silverstein Legal also mourned DeWitt’s passing as “a massive loss” for the adult industry and free speech advocacy.

“I met Clyde in 2004 when I was still a young webmaster,” Silverstein told XBIZ. “Clyde was generous and always willing to help when and where he could. Once I became a lawyer, I had the honor of working on matters with Clyde and working on matters against Clyde — even when Clyde and I were adversaries on a legal matter it was always a pleasure getting to see him in action. I referred clients to him and I also got to speak on legal panels with Clyde in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Miami. I’m going to miss joking around with him about his trademark hat and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to know him. Clyde’s contributions to free speech will never be forgotten and I was fortunate enough to witness some of them firsthand.”

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