Samantha Barbas.

Samantha Barbas

Research Focus: First Amendment Law, American Legal History, Privacy Law, Mass Communications Law

Research News

The director of The Baldy Center is Samantha Barbas. Her work focuses on the intersection of law, culture, media and technology in United States history. Her recent research has explored the history of censorship, privacy and defamation.

Barbas holds a Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of California, Berkeley, and a J.D. from Stanford Law School. She was previously a professor of history at Chapman University, a visiting professor of history at U.C. Berkeley, and a lecturer at Arizona State University. She clerked for Judge Richard Clifton on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Honolulu.

Barbas is the author of six books: The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst: Free Speech Renegade (University of Chicago Press, May 2021); Confidential Confidential: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Notorious Scandal Magazine (Chicago Review Press, 2018); Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom (Stanford University Press, 2017); Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America (Stanford University Press, 2015); The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons (University of California Press, 2005); and Movie Crazy: Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2001). Her books have been reviewed in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among other media outlets. In 2020, she received a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar award for her book in progress, on the Supreme Court First Amendment case New York Times v. Sullivan. She is an adviser on the Restatement of the Law (Third) of Torts: Defamation and Privacy.

Books — On this page


The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst: Free Speech Renegade

Samantha Barbas, Author
(University of Chicago Press, 2021)

In the 1930s and 40s, Morris Ernst was one of the best-known liberal lawyers in the country. An eminent attorney in private practice, an early leader of the American Civil Liberties Union and its general counsel for over twenty-five years, Ernst was renowned for his work in free speech, especially the fight against literary and artistic censorship. With his trademark bravado, Ernst came to the defense of films and novels considered risqué, including James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the decades before World War II, no one did more than Ernst to extend legal protections to literature, art, theater, and movies.

Censorship was only one of Ernst’s causes. Ernst was among the most prominent liberal activists of his era, at the forefront of countless initiatives, including the labor movement and civil rights. As lawyer for Margaret Sanger, Ernst litigated groundbreaking reproductive rights cases. Ernst was a confidante of Roosevelt and advised the New Deal. In the late 1930s, Ernst’s career took an unexpected turn when he became one of the most vocal anticommunists on the left, and an ally of J. Edgar Hoover and promoter and defender of the FBI. This biography tells the story of the rise and fall of this dynamic, complex man, a key figure in the ACLU who transformed free speech and was at the center of some of the era’s most significant civil liberties causes – and ultimately went on to damage the cause of civil liberties.

The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst: Free Speech Renegade (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst: Free Speech Renegade (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

Book Reviews

“A lively and illuminating portrait of one of the major figures in the history of American civil liberties. Barbas captures Ernst in all his glory and complexity, revealing how a man who was once the country’s leading liberal lawyer became a red-baiter and Hoover ally. Meticulously researched and elegantly written, The Rise and Fall of Morris Ernst is biography and legal history at its finest.” —Thomas Healy, author of The Great Dissent: How Oliver Wendell Holmes Changed His Mind—and Changed the History of Free Speech in America
“Does Morris Ernst need a biography? Yes, definitely. His is a fascinating story of a major civil libertarian who pioneered the expansion of freedom in American life then blew it all through obsessive anti-Communism. Barbas writes beautifully, and this lively, lucid book is a pleasure to read. More than that, her biography is especially significant today since so many of the issues Ernst fought against are still urgently relevant in American political discourse.” —Ellen Schrecker, author of The Lost Promise: American Universities in the 1960s 
“How could one man have been both a leading defender of the First Amendment and an avid fan of J. Edgar Hoover? Barbas’s fascinating biography answers that question by telling the remarkable story of one of the nation’s most influential, and complicated, civil liberties lawyers.” —David Cole, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union
“Ernst was a singular warrior for the freedom of expression, ultimately undone by his paradoxical embrace of Hoover and McCarthy. Barbas’s biography is a sharp, fast-paced account of a twentieth-century civil libertarian who fought for causes that are still vital today.” —Nadine Strossen, author of HATE: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship



Samantha Barbas, Author (Chicago Review Press, 2018)

In the 1950s, Confidential magazine, America’s first celebrity scandal magazine, revealed Hollywood stars’ secrets, misdeeds, and transgressions in gritty, unvarnished detail. Deploying a vast network of tipsters to root out scandalous facts about the stars, including sexual affairs, drug use, and sexual orientation, publisher Robert Harrison destroyed celebrities’ carefully constructed images and built a media empire. Confidential became the bestselling magazine on American newsstands in the 1950s, surpassing Time, Life, and the Saturday Evening Post. Eventually the stars fought back, filing multimillion-dollar libel suits against the magazine. The state of California, prodded by the film studios, prosecuted Harrison for obscenity and criminal libel, culminating in a famous, star-studded Los Angeles trial.

This is Confidential’s story, detailing how the magazine revolutionized celebrity culture and American society in the 1950s and beyond. With its bold red-yellow-and-blue covers, screaming headlines, and tawdry stories, Confidential exploded the candy-coated image of movie stars that Hollywood and the press had sold to the public. It transformed Americas from innocents to more sophisticated, worldly people, wise to the phony and constructed nature of celebrity. It shifted reporting on celebrities from an enterprise of concealment and make-believe to one that was more frank, bawdy, and true. Confidential’s success marked the end of an era of hush-hush—of secrets, closets, and sexual taboos—and the beginning of our age of tell-all exposure.

Excerpts: Book reviews

"In 'Confidential Confidential,' law professor Samantha Barbas recounts the inside story of the 'little magazine that could' with drama, humor, and verve...Ms. Barbas paces her terrific story well, and the book ends with her cogent analysis of Confidential's larger significance."
—Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

"A thoroughly researched history of a lurid publisher and Americans' lust for scandal"
—Kirkus Reviews 

"A fascinating, highly detailed study of a precursor to today's celebrity-obsessed media"
—David Pitt, Booklist 

"Popular culture enthusiasts and media studies students will appreciate how this well-documented tale resonates in today's climate of celebrity scandal and Orwellian politics"
—Library Journal 

"Samantha Barbas' book offers a concise, highly readable history of the publication's rise and precipitous fall, finally weighed down by a welter of legal entanglements that Barbas, as a law professor, is quite qualified to straighten out for the lay reader."
—Film Comment  


Samantha Barbas, Author 
(Stanford University Press, 2017)

In 1952, the Hill family was held hostage by escaped convicts in their suburban Pennsylvania home. The family of seven was trapped for nineteen hours by three fugitives who treated them politely, took their clothes and car, and left them unharmed. The Hills quickly became the subject of international media coverage. Public interest eventually died out, and the Hills went back to their ordinary, obscure lives. Until, a few years later, the Hills were once again unwillingly thrust into the spotlight by the media—with a best-selling novel loosely based on their ordeal, a play, a big-budget Hollywood adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart, and an article in Life magazine. Newsworthy is the story of their story, the media firestorm that ensued, and their legal fight to end unwanted, embarrassing, distorted public exposure that ended in personal tragedy. This story led to an important 1967 Supreme Court decision—Time, Inc. v. Hill—that still influences our approach to privacy and freedom of the press.

Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom.

Barbas explores the legal, cultural, and political wars waged around this seminal privacy and First Amendment case. This is a story of how American law and culture struggled to define and reconcile the right of privacy and the rights of the press at a critical point in history — when the news media were at the peak of their authority and when cultural and political exigencies pushed free expression rights to the forefront of social debate. Newsworthy weaves together a fascinating account of the rise of big media in America and the public's complex, ongoing love-hate affair with the press.

Excerpts: Book reviews

"This fascinating book journeys back to a transformative moment in Supreme Court history, when it declared that the Constitution protected the press's invasion of privacy of newsworthy subjects. Newsworthy inspires us to imagine what American society might look like today had the decision gone the other way."
—Laura Kalman, University of California, Santa Barbara

"In Newsworthy, Barbas demonstrates her formidable skill as a scholar and storyteller, producing a page-turner from deep research that places Time, Inc. v. Hill at the meeting point of the colliding rights of privacy and freedom of the press...Ultimately, the book offers crucial context for our understanding of the relationship between the First Amendment and the democratic public sphere."
—Patrick C. File, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly

"Drawing from detailed and as-yet unexamined sources...Barbas assembles a compelling trove of evidence to support her argument. Her analysis is organized and written in an exciting narrative that challenges academic convention. As such, readers will find Newsworthy not only a human story about the law's effects on individual lives but also a significant legal treatise on the competition between fundamental rights of privacy and press made all the more relevant by the contemporary debate about 'fake news.'"
—Andrea C. Hatcher, MCU Journal

"Placing Time, Inc. v. Hill in its legal and cultural context illuminates an underexamined period in the development of privacy law and questions current privacy standards in the United States...If readers leave Newsworthy reconsidering the constitutional balance between personal privacy and freedom of the press, the author will have achieved her goal."
—Tim Gleason, Journal of American History


Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America

Laws of Image.

Samantha Barbas, Author (Stanford University Press, 2015)

Americans have long been obsessed with their images—their looks, public personas, and the impressions they make. This preoccupation has left its mark on the law. The twentieth century saw the creation of laws that protect your right to control your public image, to defend your image, and to feel good about your image and public presentation of self.

Laws of Image tells the story of how Americans came to use the law to protect and manage their images, feelings, and reputations. In this social, cultural, and legal history, Samantha Barbas ties the development of personal image law to the self-consciousness and image-consciousness that has become endemic in our media-saturated culture of celebrity and consumerism, where people see their identities as intertwined with their public images

Listen to podcast: “Laws of Image,” New Books Network, 2016, here.

Excerpts: Book reviews

"Beautifully written and powerfully argued, Laws of Image shows us how the law develops through culture, leaving us with a rich sense of the struggle that remains as digital culture renders the image as common as the bit. This is not a story with a known ending—Samantha Barbas charts the very origin of an increasingly important legal protection, and the ongoing battle to counter a technology that knows no limits."
—Lawrence Lessig, Harvard Law School

"Barbas's book offers a lucid, wide-ranging, and accessible cultural and legal history of a time when privacy mattered, when the law helped ordinary individuals control their images, and when courts considered ratifying a right to be protected from uses others might make of an image. Laws of Image provides readers with an extraordinary voyage to a past that seems almost impossibly quaint and distant."
—Hendrik Hartog, Princeton University

"In a series of compelling stories of court cases and their social contexts, Samantha Barbas illuminates how evolving ideas about self-image and privacy transformed tort law and the freedom of speech. Laws of Image is an artful combination of cultural and legal history."
—Stuart Banner, UCLA Law School

“Today, as private lives are increasingly shared on social media, individuals continue to seek control of their personal images…..Barbas’s cultural and legal history of the effort to shape the law of public image is essential reading for understanding this ongoing effort.”
—Tim Gleason, Journal of American History

"Dr. Samantha Barbas's book, Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America, makes an original, important, and engaging contribution to the history of privacy law in the United States. Given that Laws of Image spans more than 100 years of legal and cultural developments, it is remarkable how readable this book is: It is well-written, and the flow and pacing are excellent."
—Lyrissa B. Lidsky, JOTWELL

The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons

The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons.

Samantha Barbas, Author (University of California Press, 2005)

Hollywood celebrities feared her. William Randolph Hearst adored her. Between 1915 and 1960, Louella Parsons was America's premier movie gossip columnist and in her heyday commanded a following of more than forty million readers. This first full-length biography of Parsons tells the story of her reign over Hollywood during the studio era, her lifelong alliance with her employer, William Randolph Hearst, and her complex and turbulent relationships with such noted stars, directors, and studio executives as Orson Welles, Joan Crawford, Louis B. Mayer, Ronald Reagan, and Frank Sinatra—as well as her rival columnists Hedda Hopper and Walter Winchell. Loved by fans for her "just folks," small-town image, Parsons became notorious within the film industry for her involvement in the suppression of the 1941 film Citizen Kane and her use of blackmail in the service of Hearst's political and personal agendas. As she traces Parsons's life and career, Samantha Barbas situates Parsons's experiences in the broader trajectory of Hollywood history, charting the rise of the star system and the complex interactions of publicity, journalism, and movie-making. The First Lady of Hollywood is both an engrossing chronicle of one of the most powerful women in American journalism and film and a penetrating analysis of celebrity culture and Hollywood power politics.

Excerpts: Book reviews

“Everybody knows about Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston, but nobody associates a particular byline with the story. That was hardly the case when the gossip columnist Louella Parsons revealed that Mary Pickford would divorce Douglas Fairbanks, or that Ingrid Bergman would have Roberto Rossellini's baby. Parsons was herself a celebrity, despite her notable lack of charisma, good looks or writing talent. What she had was ambition, aggressive reporting chops and the backing of William Randolph Hearst….as a co-founder of the culture of celebrity, she merits a thoughtful biography, which Barbas delivers.”
—Mark Lewis, New York Times Book Review  

“Historian Barbas's thoroughly researched and footnoted biography of the powerful gossip columnist who virtually invented celebrity journalism asks to be taken seriously as a chronicle of American history at a pivotal time -- but it is also a fast and fascinating read.... Of its kind, this is a terrific book about an unusual life, and the author has done future Hollywood historians a great service by documenting it so carefully, incidentally exposing all the falsehoods Parsons related in her own 1945 autobiography.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)  

“Why would a scholar write a book on Louella Parsons? Because although People magazine and its ilk have replaced newspaper gossip columns, in the 1930s and beyond Parsons's pen wielded enormous power over the personal lives of movie stars, who were forced to seek her good graces (e.g., in 1941 Parsons ruined the release of Citizen Kane because of its purported attack on her boss, William Randolph Hearst). As she did in Movie Crazy, Barbas continues to posit the mind of the fan and the influence of pop culture as organs of communication. Since Parsons (1885-1973) left no papers, Barbas's challenge was accurate biography. She culled her information from many sources and the result is a book that is fascinating, meticulously documented, fair to its subject, and obviously scholarly. … This is a model of biographical writing, and thus as valuable to students of biography as to those interested in Hollywood and celebrity culture.”
A. Hirsh, Choice

“It's a richly instructive explanation of how an ambitious go-getter like Parsons could parlay her talent for scoops and scandals into a long, hugely successful career.”
—Carl Rollyson, Wall Street Journal (one of his “five best Hollywood biographies.”)  

“Barbas has combined biography, Hollywood lore, and American cultural history into a seamless narrative that is both eminently readable and awesomely scholarly.”
—Bernard Dick, Journal of American History.  

“Barbas’ book is rich in detail of all aspects of Louella’s time including the cultural and the political. …It belongs in every university library, on the shelves of cultural anthropologists, film fanatics and just folk who enjoy a juicy dish.”
—Beatrice Williams-Rude, Daily Variety

"More than just an addictively engrossing study of the infamous gossip columnist, Barbas' The First Lady of Hollywood: A Biography of Louella Parsons, is a deftly written historical, political and cultural chronicle of the United States during the first half of the 20th century."
—Susan King, Los Angeles Times

 “Who speaks for Louella Parsons? Now nearly forgotten, she was once the most powerful woman in Hollywood, the vehicle through which the stars spoke to the world. Samantha Barbas’ enviably thorough and readable biography restores Parsons’ voice and her position in the movie firmament. It’s about time.”
—Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

Movie Crazy — Fans, Stars, and the Cult of Celebrity

Movie Crazy book cover.

Samantha Barbas, Author (Palgrave MacMillan, 2001)

While the impact that legendary actors and actresses have had on the development of the Hollywood film industry is well known, few have recognised the power of movie fans on shaping the industry. This books redresses that balance, and is the first study of Hollywood's golden era to examine the period from the viewpoint of the fans. Using fan club journals, fan letters, studio production records, and other previously unpublished archival sources, Samantha Barbas reveals how the passion, enthusiasm, and ongoing activism of film fans in Hollywood's golden era transformed early cinema, the modern mass media and American popular culture.

Excerpts: Book reviews

'A unique film history with astute commentary.'
—Library Journal

'With this book in hand, we can begin to understand what is popular in American popular art.'
—Lary May, author of The Big Tomorrow: Hollywood and the Politics of the American Way

'I loved this exploration of the synergism between fans, stars, studios, and the celebrity and consumer cultures in Hollywood's Golden Age. Movie Crazy is a revelation.'  —Diana McLellan, author of The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood

'Movie fans will appreciate the story of celebrities, fans, studios, stars and film producers...'
—Deland (FL) Beacon