Winter lecture series at York probes roots of human rights language

The Division of Social Science Winter Lecture Series at York is presenting a talk by University of Massachusetts Professor Thomas Hilbink, titled "The Right’s Revolution? Grassroots Conservatism and Rights Talk in 1960s USA". The talk takes place on March 13 at 2:30pm, S701 Ross Building, Keele campus.

Hilbink has been on leave from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he is a professor of legal studies, since June 2006 when he began working with the Constitutional Democracy Initiative at the Open Society Institute in New York. There he assists in strategy and grant making on issues of judicial independence, progressive constitutionalism and government transparency.

In his talk, Hilbink will discuss the way conservative social movements used "rights language" in their political campaigns during the 1960s. While many see the 1960s as the era of a rights revolution in US law, Hilbink looks back from the present moment of conservative dominance in the courts and executive branch to reconsider whether it was legal liberalism or legal conservatism that emerged from the 1960s victorious.

Using a collection of recent histories of grassroots conservatism in the years between 1945 and 1980, Hilbink argues that evidence suggests that conservative rights concepts – while often considered legally questionable – served as rallying cries for conservatism and eventually came to dominate US constitutional law.

Left: Thomas Hilbink

Hilbink has been interested for some time in the interactions of lawyers and US social movements on issues of civil rights, poverty law, the Vietnam war and the environment during the 1960s – a time when conceptions of what it meant to be a legal professional were in question.

While a student at New York University’s School of Law, where he received his JD, Hilbink was a Root-Tilden-Snow Public Interest Scholar from 1995 to 1999. His scholarship focused primarily on the history of cause lawyering in the United States, particularly lawyering for progressive social change in the 1960s and 1970s. He then received his PhD from the NYU Institute for Law & Society.

After law school Hilbink served as a law clerk to Judge Stephanie Seymour of the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. In 2002-2003, he was a Fellow in the Law & Society Program at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

He has worked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City in a variety of capacities for five years both prior to and after law school. Since coming to the University of Massachusetts in 2003, he has been involved with the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Bill of Rights Defense Committee and the Greensboro Justice Fund.

Hilbink is the founder of the Democracy & Equality Project, Inc., an organization devoted to the development and dissemination of secondary education materials on participatory democracy.

The talk is co-sponsored by the Faculty of Arts, Division of Social Science, and Law & Society Program and is open to everyone.

For more information, contact Professor Annie Bunting by e-mail at