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1L Novak wins BLSA award in honor of Justice Cleckley

WVU Law student Kinsey Novak

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Incoming student Kinsey Novak is the recipient of a $1500 book stipend from the Black Law Students Association at the West Virginia University College of Law.

Applicants for the stipend submitted an essay discussing a court opinion written by the late Franklin D. Cleckley, the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. 

Cleckley, a longtime WVU law professor, served on the state’s Supreme Court from 1994 to 1996 and authored more than 100 majority opinions. He passed away in August 2017.

Novak, who begins her 1L year at WVU Law this month, won for her essay examining Cleckley’s 1996 decision in State ex rel. Suriano v. Gaughan (198 W. Va. 339, 480 S.E.2d 548).

Suriano v. Gaughan was a defamation and libel case brought against the Ohio County Education Association by physician Dr. Thomas Romano. He claimed that he was defamed by print advertisements and quotes from OCEA’s president that publicly denounced him and other physicians who withdrew from treating patients covered by the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency.

The court sided with OCEA, ruling that its comments and advertisements were free speech because Romano “was a public figure for the limited purpose of discussion about the changes to public health care insurance programs.”

“Justice Cleckley’s decision to weaken libel laws at the beginning of the internet revolution paved the way for people to better exercise their First Amendment right to free speech in a digital age that would face unforeseen challenges in defamation and libel law,” said Novak. “The ability for ordinary voices to be heard is vital to influencing policy, whether in public health or elsewhere.”

All essays submitted for the book stipend award were judged anonymously by WVU law professors Charles DiSalvo and Nicole McConlogue based on originality, depth of analysis and research and readability.

“Kinsey thoughtfully contextualized the Suriano decision by discussing the information access booms at the cusp of the internet revolution and emergence of social media,” said McConlogue. “By placing the decision within this context, Kinsey revealed Justice Cleckley’s forethought in correcting the inherent power differentials between private speakers and public figures at a significant historical moment.

Novak is from Binghamton, New York. She received a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2018 from State University of New York at Binghamton and graduated in May 2020 from Onondaga Community College as a Registered Nurse. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Nursing from SUNY-Buffalo in 2021.

Prior to coming to law school, Novak worked as a registered nurse at WVU Medicine’s J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

Her winning essay, along with others considered for the book stipend, will be featured on WVU Law’s website and social platforms during Black History Month in February 2022. 

About Frank Cleckley

WVU Law Frank Cleckley

Franklin D. Cleckley was the first African-American faculty member at WVU Law and the first full-time African-American professor at WVU. He taught at WVU Law from 1969 until his retirement in 2013. He wrote the “Handbook on Evidence for West Virginia Lawyers” and the “Handbook on West Virginia Criminal Procedures” that are both widely considered the bible for the state’s judges and attorneys.

During the Vietnam War, Cleckley served as an officer in the law specialist program of the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General, earning the reputation of being the most requested lawyer, by defendants, in Vietnam. As a practicing attorney, Cleckley successfully argued important anti-discrimination cases as a Civil Right lawyer that helped integrate West Virginia and bring social justice to the state.

In 2015, WVU Law presented Cleckley with the Justitia Officium Award for outstanding contributions and service to the legal profession. Cleckley was born on August 1, 1940  in Huntington, West Virginia, where he was raised with his 10 brothers and sisters. He passed away in Morgantown on August 14, 2017.


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