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Civil right lawyer, 1st Amendment champion

COLUMBIA, S.C. — A South Carolina civil rights lawyer who helped redefine free speech rights for attorneys has died.

Edna Smith Primus died Nov. 29 at age 75, The State newspaper reported.

One of the first black women to practice law in South Carolina, Primus worked with the American Civil Liberties Union in the 1970s.

She became the center of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case involving the rights of attorneys to seek clients in cases that involve political expression and advocating for the rights of the public.

Primus was publicly reprimanded by the South Carolina Supreme Court for telling women who had been sterilized against their will that the ACLU could sue on their behalf.

Involuntary sterilizations were once widely imposed on impoverished, minority women. After Primus suggested possible legal action to a group of sterilized women, South Carolina’s high court said it was unethical for her to solicit business.

“We were scarce then, black women lawyers,” Smith told The State newspaper almost a decade later, in a 1989 interview. “A public reprimand splashed all over the papers, that was totally demoralizing.”

The U.S. Supreme Court later overturned the state’s reprimand, saying Primus was protected under the First Amendment. Her case helped shape modern rules on lawyers’ speech.