Elliot Rothenberg: The Grounding it Takes for a Groundbreaking Legal Career

Elliot Rothenberg standing in front of the Grand Canyon

Nobody can truly know how the decisions you make today will affect you in the future. It is a scary thought—but one that did not and does not discourage Elliot Rothenberg (BA '61), a recipient of a 2021 College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Alumni of Notable Achievement Award.

Among the most respected legal minds in the country, Rothenberg built a career based on the love of the law and the power of words. His reputation as an expert in the First Amendment rights of media organizations sprung from the landmark Cohen vs. Cowles Media company case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court. Rothenberg’s success in this case not only determined the future course of his legal career but resulted in a defining decision about First Amendment rights: media organizations are subject to the same laws of general applicability as everyone else. The Constitution does not give the media a special First Amendment privilege to break promises of confidentiality.

Rothenberg points to his esteemed career and urges CLA students to realize that “any decision you make is the right one. Years later you don’t have to say, ‘I should’ve done this, I should’ve done that.’ I don’t think you should be overly cautious. Do your thing.” 

Some of the greatest influences on Rothenberg’s life and career came from his professors and the courses he took at UMN. Specifically, Constitutional Law taught by Professor of Political Science Harold Chase inspired Rothenberg’s love for law and the First Amendment. Surprisingly for Rothenberg, he also found Advanced English Composition to be one of his most memorable courses, due to the astounding professor. Rothenberg claims, “He was so passionate about writing proper English and he would draw it out of you. It was an exciting course! That class had a big impact on me.” And he hates to admit that he cannot recall the name of the teacher.

What is not forgotten is the transformative experience offered at the University. “I consider the University as being my home. I still live in Minneapolis, so it’s not that far away and I go there from time to time. I’m very, very fond of the University,” says Rothenberg. He advises others to take risks and have fun because you never know how the things you do today will shape and change your future.

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