How much of a polarizing figure was William Kunstler?

The title of an award-winning documentary film his daughters made about him – “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” – certainly offers a hint.

The life of Kunstler, a self-described “radical lawyer” and civil rights activist in the 1960s and 70s, will be examined through a screening of the film and a panel discussion Thursday, Jan. 12 at the West Virginia University College of Law Marlyn Lugar Courtroom. “Disturbing the Universe: The Life and Work of William M. Kunstler and the Relevance of the Radical Lawyer in the Occupy Wall Street Era,” will be held in conjunction with the University’s Martin Luther King celebration. The panel discussion will tie themes from Kunstler’s life and times into current topics surrounding social unrest, including the Occupy Wall Street movement.

The event, which is free and open to the public, begins with a reception in the law school’s lobby at 5:30 p.m., followed by the film at 6 p.m. After the film there will be a panel discussion that includes Kunstler’s daughter Karin, along with several WVU faculty members and a local attorney.

Click to hear Michael Blumenthal, visiting professor at WVU's College of Law, talk about the effect of William M. Kunstler on law students, lawyers and society in the 1960s and 70s.

[ Click to download ]

“In a time of widespread political upheaval and discontent, embodied by the Occupy Wall Street Movement in recent months, Kunstler’s attitude towards lawyering, and the judicial system itself, seems relevant to our present predicament,” said Michael Blumenthal, visiting professor at WVU’s College of Law.

Although it’s a College of Law event, Blumenthal said the program touches on a broad range of topics that would appeal to the general community and academic community within WVU.

“I think this film is of real interest to the people in political science, philosophy, sociology, psychology – because the film was made by (Kunstler’s) two daughters,” Blumenthal said. “It’s also a very interesting film for film makers. It offers an interesting event to the academic community on a number of levels.”

Along with Karin Kunstler, section chief of the New York State Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, panelists are:

• Allan Karlin, a Morgantown-based civil rights and plaintiff’s attorney
John Kilwein, associate chair of political science and interim chair of Public Administration at WVU
Robert Bastress, John W. Fisher II Professor of Law, WVU College of Law

Known for his controversial clients, Kunstler, who died in 1995, was a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union and the co-founder of the Law Center for Constitutional Rights, a hub for radical lawyers in the country during the 60s and 70s.

Click to hear Blumenthal discuss the idea behind the WVU College of Law's program "Disturbing the Universe: The Life and Work of William M. Kunstler and the Relevance of the Radical Lawyer in the Occupy Wall Street Era," which includes a documentary film about Kunstler's life and a panel discussion.

[ Click to download ]

Kunstler’s defense of the “Chicago Seven” in 1969-70 led The New York Times to label him “the country’s most controversial lawyer.” He also defended members of the Catonsville Nine, Black Panther Party, Weather Underground Organization, the Attica Prison rioters, and the American Indian Movement. Kunstler, who also won a de facto segregation case involving the District of Columbia’s public schools, refused to defend groups or individuals with which he was not politically aligned.

The film, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” was made by Kunstler’s daughters Emily and Sarah. It won the L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth Vision Award at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

“The film poignantly illustrates what a polarizing figure he was,” Blumenthal said. “Many on the right wished to see him disbarred; many of the left admired him as a symbol of a certain kind of radical lawyer. Even some other civil rights lawyers regarded Kunstler as a ‘publicity hound’ and a ‘hit-and-run lawyer.’ “

Blumenthal said Kunstler’s career raises a wide variety of ethical questions about the legal profession and the legal system.

For more on the film, see:



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CONTACT: Michael Blumenthal, WVU College of Law
(304) 293-6835