Rick Hollow: Out of the ‘sauna,’ into the fire

Frank CagleOur Town Leaders

Rick Hollow has practiced all kinds of law in a 50-plus-year career, from product liability to malpractice. But he is nationally known as a First Amendment attorney, defending media outlets and fighting to open records and meetings to the public.

He represents the News Sentinel and the Tennessee Press Association and has gone to court on behalf of all the television stations in town. He has opened records for clients like the Los Angles Times and has defended Hustler magazine against an invasion of privacy lawsuit. Other clients have included “Unsolved Mysteries” and Bantam Books.

The gregarious Hollow can entertain a listener for hours recapping cases and arguing freedom of the press issues. (He ought to write a book.) And the 79-year-old still represents the News Sentinel and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Richard “Rick” Hollow arrived in Knoxville at the age of 14 in time to start Catholic High School. His family moved here from Missouri for his dad’s job. He graduated from Catholic in 1958.

His mother wanted him to be a lawyer, and high school placement tests found him suitable for such a profession. He started at the University of Tennessee, majoring in journalism as an undergraduate. He graduated from law school in 1964; he got into law school after only three years as an undergrad.

He worked his way through school doing construction and working at Standard Knitting Mill, tying off bales in a “hot box” on the third floor. “It was the hardest job I ever had.”

He was rescued from the knitting-mill sauna when his dad got him a job in the Sears credit department at the old store on Central Avenue. He was promoted to the position of “outside contact man,” i.e., the bill collector. That job often required he also be a repo man.

“Some people took offense to being asked to surrender the tires on their car” for nonpayment. He roamed all over East Tennessee, from Sullivan County to Roane County and almost all the counties in between. “I met a lot of people. I repossessed motorcycles, chain saws, kitchen appliances. I remember one lady who bought an entire kitchen suite. While we packed it all up on the truck she was on the phone to the credit manager. He relented and we then had to unload all the stuff and put it back.”

When he finished law school he clerked for Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice Hamilton Burnett, writing opinions. The justice couldn’t make (or didn’t want to make) a mixer for the first-year law students at UT. So he sent his clerk instead. It was there that Hollow looked across the room and spotted Judy Bass, a first-year student: “The best looking lady I had ever seen in my life.” He walked over and joined the conversation, but when the mixer was over all he had was her name. And he definitely wanted to see her again.

He parked behind the law school, went in the back door and – to the shock of the dean’s secretary – he opened a file drawer, found her address and phone number, then scooted back out the door.

After several attempts he got her on the phone and talked her into dates. That was in the fall, and they married in the spring of 1965. They have two sons, David Hollow, who is in the practice with his dad, and Kenneth Hollow, who has an IT company.

Hollow was hired as the first deputy law director for the city of Knoxville. The city operated a criminal sessions court at that time. He also advised city council and the planning commission. When a longtime city judge retired (with a little help from the News Sentinel) 600 cases were found in file drawers and stacked around the place. The cases were put on the docket and gradually worked down, one case after another.

UT got a grant to open a legal clinic. They hired Hollow as an instructor to provide legal services in the community using UT law students. He also taught a class on communications law at UT, Monday, Wednesday and Friday for 10 years.

Hollow joined Frank Creekmore and son David Creekmore as a partner. David Creekmore became a judge. Frank Creekmore was the News Sentinel attorney, and when he died Hollow took over. Being the attorney for the News Sentinel and with his undergraduate degree in journalism, Hollow became the go-to guy on media issues. He has testified often before the legislature on open records and sunshine laws.

There was a woman in Jefferson County who sued Hustler magazine claiming invasion of privacy. She said one of the photos on the Girls Next Door page was she, taken at a fashion model portfolio session. Hollow took the case for the magazine and found that the photo was a stock file photo and had not been submitted. He tracked down the photographer of the woman’s fashion shoot, who turned out to be a biker-gang member down in Alabama. Hollow went to see him and a $100 bill secured the photos, which turned out to be some really bad Polaroids. After he presented the evidence to the woman’s attorney, the suit was withdrawn.

The most high profile of his cases locally was the lawsuit resulting from Black Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007, when term limits were instituted and offices were being swapped back and forth, with hallway transactions and cell phones moving chess pieces. Voters had approved term limits in 1994, but the decision had been ignored until a court ruling forced courthouse incumbents out of office. The News Sentinel hired Hollow to take the mess to court, and the county commission to this day is under a permanent injunction to sunshine meetings – or else.

Hollow’s latest cases involve getting testimony in Big Pharma lawsuits unsealed and accessible to the press and the public.

Hollow isn’t likely to run out of press cases. “When Tennessee’s open records act was passed there were four exceptions. There are now 600 exceptions, according to the Comptroller’s Office.”

Frank Cagle is a retired newspaperman and the former managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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