Nimmer, Melville B. (1923–1985)

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NIMMER, MELVILLE B. (1923–1985)

After his graduation from Harvard Law School Melville Nimmer practiced law in Los Angeles for more than a decade. During that time he wrote the foundational article elaborating the "right of publicity," a right to control the commercial use of one's own identity. He also produced Nimmer on Copyright (1st ed., 1963), a four-volume treatise rightly called "magisterial," which soon became the nation's leading authority on copyright law. In 1962 he joined the law faculty of the University of California, Los Angeles, where he was a much-loved teacher of copyright law (later expanded into entertainment law), contracts, and constitutional law.

Although Nimmer's constitutional law scholarship ranged over such diverse topics as American civil rights legislation and judicial review in Israel, the main focus of his attention was the first amendment. He practiced what he preached, serving the american civil liberties union as counsel in a number of cases, including cohen v. california (1971). In Cohen the Supreme Court adopted Nimmer's argument severely restricting the assumption, casually made in chaplinsky v. new hampshire (1942), that profanity lay outside the First Amendment's protection. The case produced one of Justice john marshall harlan's most noteworthy opinions, and today it is widely taught in law school courses dealing with the freedom of speech.

Nimmer's First Amendment articles dealt with movie censorship, libel and invasion of privacy (see privacy and the first amendment), symbolic speech, national security secrets, the special role of the press clause, and—inevitably—the relation of copyright to the First Amendment. (He wrote on three of these topics for this Encyclopedia.) In these writings he developed a theory of "definitional balancing" that became one of the theoretical centerpieces of his last major work on constitutional law, Nimmer on Freedom of Speech: A Treatise on the Theory of the First Amendment (1984). Nimmer planned to supplement this treatise regularly, and specifically to apply his theories to "national security, breach of the peace, commercial speech and obscenity." When he died the next year, his colleagues and the larger community lost much more than those products of a gifted legal mind.

Kenneth L. Karst


Melville B. Nimmer Symposium 1987 UCLA Law Review 34: 1331–1903 (includes a complete list of Nimmer's published works).