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)

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.


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.

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.

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.


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.