Richard Marten Schmidt Jr., 80, a lawyer who for many years represented the American Society of Newspaper Editors, died Oct. 17 of congestive heart failure at his home in Washington.
Mr. Schmidt was affable and unfailingly courteous -- something of a small-town guy, one of his sons said -- but for more than 35 years he regularly waded into contentious issues involving open meetings, open records, censorship and other First Amendment rights.
"He was passionate about First Amendment issues, and that got him into hot water all the time," said Joann Byrd, former editorial page editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a former ombudsman at The Washington Post.
In a 1986 dispute that still reverberates today, he spoke for ASNE in defense of a Washington Times reporter who was resisting a House Ethics Committee subpoena for his notes after he disclosed results of the panel's investigation of Geraldine A. Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential nominee.
"Reporters have a right to protect their sources, and the subpoena should be resisted in every way," he said, noting that the House panel could conduct an internal investigation without questioning the reporter.
In 1987, Mr. Schmidt applauded a Supreme Court ruling in favor of The Washington Post that made it easier for news organizations to do investigative reporting. "It's just another roadblock that's been removed from good, vigorous investigative reporting," he said.
Mr. Schmidt was born in Winfield, Kan., and raised in El Dorado, Kan. As a teenager, he had polio, which kept him in a full body cast for a year and prevented him from serving in the military during World War II.
As a student at the University of Denver, where he received his bachelor's degree in 1945, he got a job at radio station KOA, working on a program called "Heroes of the Navy." Later, as an undergraduate and as a student at the University of Denver College of Law, he handled music, news and sports at radio station KMYR.
Mr. Schmidt didn't intend to be a lawyer. He went to law school because his father thought it would be good training for whatever he decided to do with his life. He received his law degree in 1948 and at the urging of an adjunct professor became a deputy district attorney for the city and county of Denver, in 1949 and 1950.
He went into private practice in Denver in 1950, representing several radio stations and other clients. He also was an adjunct professor of communications law at the University of Denver from 1949 to 1962.
He worked in Washington in 1959 as chief counsel for Sen. Stuart Symington (D-Mo.), chairman of a special Senate subcommittee investigating the Commodity Credit Corp.
He moved to Washington permanently in 1965 to become general counsel and congressional liaison for the U.S. Information Agency, then headed by John Chancellor.
During Mr. Schmidt's three years at USIA, Congress passed the Freedom of Information Act. Mr. Schmidt, who understood the importance of the law, recalled a panicked assistant rushing into his office and asking, "What are we going to do about this?"
"That was a typical reaction of government bureaucrats," he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the 30th anniversary of FOIA's enactment.
He became a partner with the Washington law firm of Cohn and Marks in 1969. Specializing in communications law, he became ASNE's general counsel that same year, as well as Washington counsel for the Association of American Publishers.
In recent years, Mr. Schmidt voiced concern that most Americans did not fully understand the First Amendment and its powerful impact on daily life.
He characterized the amendment as "a remarkably broad declaration of basic human rights. As the novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote: 'It reads more like a dream than a law.' "
Mr. Schmidt was also a lecturer at Catholic University in 1972-73. He resigned from Cohn and Marks and as ASNE general counsel Oct. 1 because of ill health.
Survivors include his wife of 56 years, Ann Downing Schmidt of Washington; three children, Eric Schmidt of Portland, Ore., Greg Schmidt of Washington and Heidi Van Genderen of Denver; a sister; and six grandchildren.