John Borger was drawn to journalism early on, starting with his high school newspaper in Parkersburg, W.Va. He stayed with it on the campus paper at Michigan State University, where he met fellow journalist Judith Yates, and took his devotion to the free press to Yale Law School.
Eventually Borger landed in Minnesota, where he built a long and noteworthy career as one of the nation’s pre-eminent First Amendment lawyers.
Borger, 68, died Monday at his home in Minneapolis as his son Nicholas read to him from a prized DC comic book. He had endured a struggle with cancer for several years.
He provided counsel to generations of editors and writers at the Star Tribune. The newspaper’s general counsel, Randy Lebedoff, called him “a brilliant First Amendment advocate who contributed greatly to our state and country by standing up for freedom of speech when it counted.”
In 2017, Borger retired from the Faegre Baker Daniels law firm, where he represented the Star Tribune and other media organizations for four decades. The following year, he became only the third lawyer to receive the Champion of the First Amendment Award, the highest honor from the American Bar Association (ABA) Forum on Communications Law, at its annual conference in Napa, Calif.
The award cited Borger’s devotion to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, “passionately and zealously fighting to hold public officials and institutions accountable through transparency.” It said he played a pivotal role in helping to organize a national network of lawyers that represents the news media.
Borger was the lead attorney representing the estate of the late Chris Kyle, who was sued for defamation by former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Ventura said Kyle fabricated an incident in Kyle’s bestselling memoir, “American Sniper,” concerning a fight Kyle claimed the two had in a California bar. Ventura won a $1.8 million verdict in U.S. District Court in St. Paul in 2014, but it was overturned by the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and settled out of court in 2017.
Borger was well-known and admired across Twin Cities newsrooms. As word of his death spread, journalists shared their stories of receiving his steady and comforting counsel, ranging from prepublication review of sensitive stories to defense of the press in court. Friends described him as a gentle presence with a warm grin but also a glint in his eye that suggested he was up for the good fight.
Mark Anfinson, a First Amendment lawyer in Minneapolis, worked closely with Borger throughout his career.
“I always regarded him as the oracle,” Anfinson said, adding that Borger was a “lawyer’s lawyer” who was thoughtful, respectful, tenacious and always able to control the emotions of a case.
Borger wasn’t one to speak loudly or wave his hands around to make a point. His reserve meant he could occasionally be underestimated, Anfinson said.
“The minute he opened his mouth, that illusion was dispelled,” Anfinson said. “His analysis was so good, he didn’t have to engage in all those tricks. He always made the best possible argument.”
Retired Star Tribune reporter Mike Meyers recalled working with Borger to make sure a story he was writing about a downtown development wouldn’t get the newspaper sued. Meyers said his editors were wary of a sidebar he had written about a city official’s role in the deal. So he was pleasantly surprised when Borger said, according to Meyers, “Nothing of concern here. It’s all part of the rough and tumble of politics and commerce. She’s a public figure.”
Steve Brandt, another retired Star Tribune reporter, met Borger at age 20 when they both had college journalism internships. Their families were friends for years, and Brandt said they gathered for a board game last week and had expected to do so again Wednesday.
Professionally, Brandt said Borger was a journalist’s ally. “He repeatedly helped reporters pry loose loads of government data that pols would have preferred not be revealed,” Brandt said. “He lawyered countless draft stories before publication to armor-plate them against libel.”
In recent weeks, Borger lovingly chronicled his life on a CaringBridge site. He wrote his final passage Friday about his wedding to Yates in 1974 and their honeymoon on Cape Cod where, he wrote, “Judy danced beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free, silhouetted by the sea.”
On Monday, Judith Yates Borger, a retired St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter, wrote on the CaringBridge site about how John spent his final Sunday with the family at iFly Indoor Skydiving in Minnetonka, an indoor wind tunnel that simulates the sensation of jumping out of an airplane. He wore a Superman sweatshirt and was aided by three staff members as he took the plunge with his family.
“With his thumbs up, and a smile on his face, John felt the joy of free flight,” Judith Yates Borger wrote.
Besides his wife and son Nicholas of St. Paul, Borger is survived by his daughter, Jennifer Schmid, and son Christopher, both of Minneapolis, and six grandchildren. A celebration of life will be held from 4 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 2 at the Elmer L. Andersen Library, the University of Minnesota’s West Bank campus, 222 21st Av. S., Minneapolis.