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Legal Defense Fund Committee
The LDF Committee oversees the Society's Legal Defense Fund, a unique account that can be tapped for providing journalists with legal or direct financial assistance. Application to the fund is approved by either a small committee or the national board, depending on the level of assistance sought. The committee works throughout the year raising funds for LDF.

FOI FYI: Latest Posts
– Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14
– Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14
– FOIA should be proactive, not reactive


Legal Defense Fund Committee Chair

Hagit Limor
Investigative Reporter
WCPO-TV
1720 Gilbert Avenue
Cincinnati, OH 45202
513/852-4012
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Hagit Limor’s experience with SPJ includes stints as National President; National President-Elect; National Secretary-Treasurer; National Membership Committee; National Finance Committee Chair; current National Legal Defense Fund Committee chair; National Chair of Executive Director Search Committee; Board Member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation; and Greater Cincinnati Pro Chapter President, membership chairman and current chapter treasurer.

Outside of SPJ, she serves in dual roles as a professor at the University of Cincinnati's Electronic Media Department and as WXIX-TV's Emmy and national award-winning investigative reporter. Her abilities as a writer and reporter have garnered Hagit more than 100 national, state and local awards, including ten Emmy awards, a National Headliner Award, three national Sigma Delta Chi Awards and as a national finalist with the Investigative Reporters and Editors Association. Hagit received bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.


Freedom of Information
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FOI Audit Tookit | PDF
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FOI FYI: SPJ’s FOI Committee Blog
– Must read FOI stories – 7/25/14
– Must read FOI stories – 7/18/14
– FOIA should be proactive, not reactive

FOI Committee
This committee is the watchdog of press freedoms across the nation. It relies upon a network of volunteers in each state organized under Project Sunshine. These SPJ members are on the front lines for assaults to the First Amendment and when lawmakers attempt to restrict the public's access to documents and the government's business. The committee often is called upon to intervene in instances where the media is restricted.

Freedom of Information Committee Chair

David Cuillier
Director and Associate Professor
School of Journalism
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721
Work: 520-626-9694
Email
@DavidCuillier
Bio (click to expand) David Cuillier, Ph.D., is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he researches and teaches access to public records, and is co-author with Charles Davis of "The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records." He served as FOI chair 2007-11 before becoming a national officer and serving as SPJ president in 2013-14.

Before entering academia, he was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Pacific Northwest. He has testified before Congress on FOI issues twice and provides newsroom training in access on behalf of SPJ. His long-term goal is to see a unified coalition of journalism organizations fighting for press freedom and funded through an endowed FOI war chest.

Home > Legal Defense Fund > LDF in Action

Legal Defense Fund
LDF in action

Jump to: 2014 | 2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006 | 2005

July 16, 2014

The committee stood up for two favorite causes: open records and the rights of student journalists. SPJ FOI summer intern David Schick applied as a University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism student seeking budget deficit records that led to layoffs at Georgia Perimeter College. He filed two Open Records Act requests but the university system released only some documents, denying others due to an “open investigation.” He filed suit challenging this claim as well as excessive fees. The case went to trial in April. The committee awarded $5,000 for David’s pro bono attorney and are awaiting the judge’s decision.


May 6, 2014

The committee spent $750 to join an amicus brief that would uphold the recognition of the use of hyperlinks as part of a fair report privilege under libel law and would apply state anti-SLAPP statutes in federal court. This suit would counter several recent rulings that denied usage of state law, allowing some libel plaintiffs to circumvent SLAPP statutes by filing in federal court.


May 5, 2014

The committee fought back the government deciding what information is newsworthy after the Prison Legal News requested documents from the Federal Bureau of Prisons. BOP redacted key details citing privacy exemptions, and the judge upheld privacy over public interest because there was no well-publicized scandal involving BOP personnel. The committee joined the Reporters Committee amicus at no cost, holding that newsworthiness is not a test for whether a document is public.


May 1, 2014

The committee joined another Reporters Committee amicus in a case involving Don Scholz, the founding member of the band “Boston.” He sued the Boston Herald for publishing articles in which band-mate Brad Delp’s ex-wife alleged band tension caused Delp to commit suicide. The state trial court ruled these statements to be opinion and dismissed the case but Scholz appealed to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, which has ruled against the Herald on libel matters in the past.


April 7, 2014

The committee awarded the Greater Charlotte Pro SPJ Chapter $5,000 to challenge closed door meetings the Charlotte City Council held to incentivize the Carolina Panthers to stay in town. In late 2012 and early 2013 council held closed sessions to approve sales tax increases for stadium renovations. The meetings were held without the public’s knowledge and with police posted to keep citizens out, even though the stadium is on public land and the deal involved taxes. Especially egregious, SPJ sued Charlotte city officials in the 1970s under similar circumstances. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the suit in summary judgment but the committee believes the fight to be just and worthy.


January 9, 2014

The committee joined the Reporters Committee to oppose an extensive sealing of motions in a class-action suit against Google regarding the scanning of Gmail messages and then targeting ads based on that scanning. Google claims scanning email content is authorized under exceptions to the federal Wiretap Act. Plaintiffs are arguing it violates not only the federal act but also state wiretapping and eavesdropping statutes. The case impacts millions of Gmail users but also could set boundaries for online service providers’ use of their customer data. SPJ's involvement targets the sealing of court records. Both sides moved and the judge granted motions to seal vast amounts of information in this case. SPJ's motion argues these to be unsealed as a violation of the First Amendment right of access in a topic of significant import to the public regarding privacy rights and the workings of a giant technology company. SPJ's attorney advised that sealing of information with very little reasoned analysis has long been an issue in tech-related cases.


January 4, 2014

The committee approved the maximum $5,000 in a case impacting student access to campus police reports. Students at Otterbein historically got access to campus incident reports from the local police department. But once Otterbein’s security force became its own police department in 2011, it began denying access on grounds that a university police department is a private institution, not subject to the Ohio Public Records Act. Students now only can access the log required under the Clery Act, often out of date or lacking crucial information. The restrictions have limited reporting on the student magazine and website on important stories including sex assaults on campus.


November 12, 2013

The committee joined the Reporters Committee in a libel case brought by University of Virginia professor Michael Mann against the National Review and the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Michael Mann is a climate scientist known for his controversial work on global warming. A July 2012 National Review blog post questioned Mann’s research methods and made a colorful, and perhaps unfortunate, analogy to Jerry Sandusky. CEI heavily excerpted the National Review blog post. Mann sued both. They moved to dismiss under the new D.C. anti-SLAPP statute. The committee approved funds for the sole issue that courts should allow appeals when they deny SLAPP motions as a double check to protect the First Amendment; otherwise, SLAPP suits could be allowed to proceed through trial even if the trial court gets it wrong, which defeats the purpose of a SLAPP statute.


October 25, 2013

SPJ joined the Reporters Committee in U.S. v. Apel, pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. Not a typical press case, this issue involved restrictions on access by protestors to a public thoroughfare, in this case in an area outside Vandenberg Air Force Base that had been designated as a forum for speech since 1989. Although the Court is focused on the question of whether the military exerts exclusive control of the area, the underlying First Amendment issue of places to which the public and the media have access is of critical importance to newsgathering. A decision giving the government more discretion to limit First Amendment activities in areas traditionally open to the public even in the face of a statute would, obviously, have a negative impact on the media.


September 12, 2013

The committee joined an amicus request from the National Press Photographers Association and the Reporters Committee in Leigh v. Jewell, pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The case in a nutshell involved access for reporters to photograph wild horse roundups on land owned by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. A lower court found a presumption of access was overcome by safety concerns. The amicus brief argues that journalists are perfectly capable of protecting themselves and that the roundups’ newsworthiness overcomes any safety concerns. The committee signed on, saying that keeping the government honest about rights of access, no matter the situation, is important.


June 28, 2013

The WikiLeaks story that has provided so much fodder for SPJ discussion over the past three years lead to a third amicus request the committee approved on June 28, as the Pfc. Bradley Manning court martial began. The brief argued for access to court documents filed in the case, an issue in any military tribunal. The brief argued that the First Amendment provides a right of access to documents in courts martial.


June 3, 2013

The committee approved another Reporters Committee request June 3 to join a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder suggesting ways to improve DOJ guidelines. The changes include adding a statement of principles, providing notice to news organizations/journalists and giving them a chance to be heard if their records are requested from a third party (telephone company or internet service provider), and broadening of all newsgathering materials that could be requested (not just phone records) and all methods that could be used to request them (not just subpoenas).


April 22, 2013

The committee approved an amicus request from the Reporters Committee in a FOIA case before the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The case supports an appeal by the New York Times and the ACLU (New York Times v. DOJ) for government to release memos about the use of lethal force against American citizens and the targeted killings of suspected terrorists. The memos were classified but, among other arguments, the Times and ACLU said so many high-level officials, including President Obama, had made public statements about the program, they should be declassified. The amicus brief highlighted the exponential growth in classification decisions made by the Executive Branch in the past decade. It pointed out that there’s no external oversight of the classification process and questions federal courts ability to scrutinize classification requests from the Executive Branch, weakening information obtainable under FOIA.


March 7, 2013

The committee joined an amicus brief with a coalition of groups including the Florida Institute of Justice, the Florida Press Association, the First Amendment Foundation and the Reporters Committee to challenge Florida prison regulations that prohibit prisoners from possessing certain publications, now interpreted to include Prison Legal News.

The rules prohibit any publication that contains ads for certain calling and pen pal services, the purchase of products or services with stamps, and any prisoner employment. States get broad discretion from courts in how they run prisons so courts traditionally have supported their interpretations of what is allowed.

Prison Legal News argued the regulations were being used to prevent distribution of their publication to prisoners and that these restrictions violate the prisoners’ First Amendment rights. The amicus brief adds that the regulations are arbitrary and do not achieve a legitimate objective.


December 17, 2012

The committee signed on to another Reporters Committee amicus brief to support nationwide access to public records.

In McBurney v. Young, SPJ asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse an appeals court decision restricting access to public records. Under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, only state residents have access to public information. The same is true in Alabama, Arkansas, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Tennessee.

Even with an exemption for media in Virginia, SPJ argued that the VFOIA is unconstitutional. The exemption does not cover international outlets or online media that serve Virginia residents. The brief argued that this law prevents all out-of-state media from obtaining public records, thereby restricting the media’s ability to report on matters of public importance.


October 29, 2012

The committee joined another Reporters Committee amicus request to challenge the rubber-stamping by courts of Executive Branch requests to classify documents under the "national security" blanket.

The issue at the heart of Center for International Environmental Law v. U.S. Office of the Trade Representative, involved whether a D.C. trial court erred when it ordered the release of a document withheld under Exemption 1 of the Freedom of Information Act. That exemption allows the government and courts to withhold national security/classified information.

The only document at issue was a one-page position paper created during trade talks among dozens of Western nations more than a decade ago that spelled out rules that would have changed free trade and investment laws. The document was shared with 33 other countries, and the rules were never adopted.

The Department of Justice argued that the document is classified and that releasing it would damage foreign relations because the United States would betray the trust of other countries with whom it promised to keep the documents confidential. The trial court disagreed and ordered the document released. The DOJ appealed to the D. C. U.S. Court of Appeals.

The government argued that courts should not be permitted to second-guess classification claims made by the Executive Branch because courts lack expertise to make those determinations. The amicus brief SPJ joined countered that that courts regularly scrutinize agency classification decisions, and that courts should retain their independent role rather than simply defer to the Executive Branch.


October 15, 2012

The committee joined an amicus request from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a Federal Circuit access case, Apple v. Samsung, to support access to discovery documents in cases where trade secrecy is claimed.

Reuters had intervened in this case to ask that many of the discovery documents be unsealed. The trial judge ordered that many financial documents be released. Both Apple and Samsung appealed that order. Reuters chose not to pursue the appeal so the First Amendment Coalition stepped in to intervene.

When the federal court denied that request, the FAC filed an amicus brief countering the companies’ arguments against the unsealing of the documents. The Reporters Committee also drafted a more general brief stressing the importance of access in cases like this and opposing the blanket secrecy often allowed any time alleged “trade secrets” are involved. The LDF Committee joined to support this effort.


Oct. 25, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief supporting Project Vote/Voting for America, Inc. advocating openness of voter registration applications. At issue is whether the state of Virginia can withhold voter registration information from the public simply because the state included a promise of privacy on the applications.

As the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia found, the information on voter registration applications is public information, excluding social security numbers, and cannot be withheld from the public. However, the court also ruled that the state must only release future voter registration information, keeping all prior applications private. The amicus brief argues against this part of the decision.

The National Voter Registration Act requires states to make available to the public “all records concerning the implementation of programs and activities conducted for the purpose of ensuring the accuracy and currency of official lists of eligible voters.” Journalists have long depended on access to voter registration records as a way to monitor the accuracy and honesty of the information state officials use to determine who will be allowed to vote.

U.S. courts have set a precedent in favor of releasing voter registration information on the grounds that “public disclosure ... promotes transparency and accountability in the electoral process to an extent other measures cannot,” as cited in Doe v. Reed, 2010. Furthermore, the state of Virginia’s claim that voter information is private has also been refuted by a number of U.S. courts.


July 22, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief challenging a complaint filed by the owner of the Washington Redskins, alleging that he was defamed in a Washington City Paper cover story titled “The Cranky Redskin Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder.” Owner Dan Snyder filed the case, Snyder v. Creative Loafing Inc., against the Washington, D.C. weekly Washington City Paper and reporter Dave McKenna for publishing an article revealing information about, among other topics, Snyder’s past legal and public relations problems.

The amicus brief argues that Snyder’s case is a SLAPP suit, or strategic litigation against public participation. In a SLAPP suit, the plaintiff does not seek to win in the lawsuit, but rather aims to put relentless legal and financial pressure on the defendant in order to prevent future negative news coverage.

If the defendants show that the suit is a SLAPP suit, the plaintiff must prove a likelihood of prevailing on the merits of the case. The City Paper and McKenna have argued that the claim will not succeed because the allegedly defamatory statements are substantially true or protected opinion. The case is pending in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.


July 1, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief challenging a subpoena against Wall Street Journal reporter Jesse Eisinger involving the New York shield law for journalists. Eisinger authored and co-authored a series of Wall Street Journal articles about Belgian speech technology company Lernout & Hauspie, most notably one that included the results of the news outlet’s investigation revealing that L&H either lied or misrepresented its Asian customer revenues. After publication, L&H's stock dropped 19 percent, the SEC launched an investigation, and L&H ultimately declared bankruptcy.

The plaintiffs in the case are a Massachusetts couple who have sued Goldman Sachs for a breach of fiduciary duty arising from Goldman's role as "exclusive financial advisor" to the couple's company, Dragon Systems, and its merger with L&H.

The plaintiffs said in their suit that they need the testimony of Eisinger to confirm the details published in the WSJ articles about what the reporter "did to uncover the problems with L&H's reported Asian revenues" to prove that Goldman could have done the same.

Authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the amicus brief argues that forcing Eisinger to testify would substantially weaken the protections available for journalists under the New York shield law. The law protects reporters from revealing privileged information and sources, even when compelled by subpoena.


April 25, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief supporting the ACLU of Illinois, challenging the constitutionality of a federal court ruling that claims the First Amendment does not guarantee the right to publicly record police officers engaged in their duties. Under the Illinois Eavesdropping Act, a citizen or journalist using a cell phone or video camera to record police conduct, even if on a public street, could be subject to criminal prosecution.

The brief argues that the Illinois statute is unconstitutional because there is a well-established First Amendment right to gather information in the public domain. The brief cites numerous examples within the past few years where the law would cause potentially harmful implications on newsgathering.


March 25, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief in support of a case challenging the constitutionality of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. Mark McBurney and Roger Hurlbert, both non-residents of Virginia, made records requests under VFOIA. The current statute denies open records access to anyone who is not a resident of Virginia.

McBurney, who relocated from Virginia to Rhode Island, twice sought VFOIA documents after the state’s Department of Child Support Enforcement admitted mishandling his child support case. The department denied both requests, citing that he was no longer a Virginia resident. Hurlbert, a California resident, made a VFOIA request to the Henrico County Assessor’s Office for real estate tax assessment records for his clients. The request was denied because of his non-residency status.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia denied the case motion for summary judgment filed by McBurney and Hurlbert, which argued that the VFOIA provision requiring in-state residence was unconstitutional. The case is now pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.


Jan. 20, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief supporting a TV station in Hattiesburg, Miss., fighting to lift a court order preventing it from airing a videotape of alleged abuse at a youth detention facility. WDAM, an NBC affiliate, petitioned the Mississippi Supreme Court to allow it to broadcast video it acquired of alleged abuse at the state’s Forrest County Juvenile Detention Center. The video depicts approximately six juveniles in a physical exchange with detention center staff. Prior to airing the footage, WDAM acknowledged to Forrest County Youth Court prosecutors that the station obtained the video.

The prosecution was quickly granted a court injunction on Dec. 30 by the court to prohibit WDAM, or any other individual or news outlet from disclosing, publishing or broadcasting the tape, even though WDAM agreed to blur the juveniles’ faces. The court ruled that WDAM failed to provide evidence of a need in showing the video. The court also concluded that the tapes were obtained unlawfully and that the prior restraint was needed to protect the inmates’ privacy.

An amicus brief, authored by law firm Covington & Burling LLP on behalf of a coalition of media companies and non-profits, asserts that the order is an unconstitutional prior restraint on the station’s ability to publish truthful information of public significance. Also, it reflects WDAM’s argument that the court failed to present evidence that this action will protect confidentiality and serve rehabilitative purposes.

Update Jan. 28, 2011: The Mississippi Supreme Court dismissed an injunction on WDAM, allowing the station to air the footage. &151; Mediabistro


Jan. 14, 2011

SPJ joined an amicus brief seeking to uphold strict Maryland requirements for defamation claims in a case that, if reversed, could increase the number of defamation claims against journalists.

Stephen Norman was the owner, operator and an attorney for Sussex LLC, a title insurance company and defendant in a June 2007 class action lawsuit that was later re-filed in a federal trial court. The lawsuit alleged that the Metropolitan Money Store and several other companies and real estate professionals engaged in mortgage fraud.

An attorney in the lawsuit, Scott Borison, created a website that listed the parties in the case and provided links to their law firms and pleadings in the case. Although Norman’s name was only mentioned in one of those pleadings as a victim rather than perpetrator, he filed a defamation claim in Maryland state court, claiming that Borison and the other class action lawyers defamed him by talking to the press about the suit and posting court documents online.

The state appellate court affirmed a lower trial court’s ruling, holding that allegedly defamatory statements about a company are not “of and concerning” the owners or shareholders of that company. The court also affirmed that the statements were protected by a privilege that extends to papers filed and comments made during litigation and are public record.

The amicus brief, authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argues that the lower court was correct in dismissing the claims and that the underlying policy rationale requires a finding that attorneys are privileged to provide journalists with copies of legal filings as well as accurate summaries and comments on the documents.

Update April 27, 2011: The Supreme Court of Maryland affirmed the appellate court’s judgment that Borison’s website did not constitute defamation. —Justia


Dec. 20, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief seeking to uphold a Pennsylvania libel statute and protect journalists from defamation claims years after online publication. In 2009, Arthur Wolk, a prominent aviation lawyer and pilot, Googled his name and stumbled on a 2007 blog posting on Overlawyered.com that criticized his handling of a case in Georgia. Wolk filed a complaint for defamation against the site’s publisher, Walter Olson.

Wolk argued to apply Pennsylvania’s discovery rule, which in some cases allows a plaintiff to bring a lawsuit within one year of when a defamatory statement is “discovered” rather than when it is published. A federal trial court, applying the long-standing libel claim statute, granted a motion by Olson to dismiss the libel suit. The court held that it would not apply the discovery rule over the statute of limitations in a mass-media defamation case involving a blog, which is included as a form of “mass media.”

The amicus brief, authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argues that blogs deserve the same protection given to other mass media that are not subject to the discovery rule. The brief also argues that the public policy behind the First Amendment calls for very limited statutes of limitation and suggests against the use of the discovery rule to defamation actions arising from mass media publications.

Update July 28, 2011: Wolk filed a new lawsuit against 42 parties, including the defendants in Wolk v. Olson. &151; Courthouse News Service


Dec. 13, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief urging the New Jersey Supreme Court not to improperly narrow the definition of a journalist under the shield law. The case concerns Shellee Hale, a blogger who was sued by management software company Too Much Media after she posted defamatory comments about suspected security breaches at the company.

A trial court ruled that Hale could not invoke the state’s shield law to protect the identity of her sources because Hale had no affiliation with a “legitimate” news publication and her message board postings bore no similarity to traditional forms of journalism. An appellate court upheld the ruling.

The appellate court decision established restrictive criteria that limit who qualifies as a journalist. In addition, the appellate court implied that a trial court must conduct a hearing to determine whether a person invoking the shield law is more than a “self-proclaimed” journalist. The amicus brief argues that the state must interpret the shield law broadly enough to include online content providers who have the intent when gathering information to disseminate it and contribute to the free exchange of ideas.

The brief also argues that the appellate court made a mistake in deciding that a person who invokes the reporter’s privilege is then subject to a full preliminary hearing to determine eligibility for the protection.

Update June 7, 2011: The Supreme Court of New Jersey held that Hale’s activities did not constitute journalism, and thus did not satisfy the statute. &151; Citizen Media Law Project


Nov. 19, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief supporting the Federal Communications Commission’s fight for full disclosure of AT&T documents. At issue in the case FCC v. AT&T is whether a corporation can assert a personal privacy right under Exemption 7(c) of the Freedom of Information Act as grounds for withholding documents from the public. The provision exempts document disclosures in law enforcement records that would constitute an invasion of “personal privacy.”

CompTel, a trade association for communications service providers, filed a public records request with the FCC in 2005, seeking documents related to an FCC probe into whether AT&T had overcharged the agency for work on a technology education project. AT&T fought the request, arguing that releasing the documents violated Exemption 7(c) of the Act.

The FCC rejected AT&T’s argument and agreed to release the documents, finding that a corporation has no “personal privacy” as a matter of law. In September 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed the FCC disclosure order and ruled that AT&T, a corporation, has a personal privacy right under the exemption.

The brief, authored by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, argues that the exemption has never been interpreted as extending rights to corporations and should be applied solely to individuals to protect personal details unrelated to business conduct. The brief also argues that giving corporations new rights under the exemption would impede journalists’ ability to act as watchdogs.

Update March 1, 2010: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the protection in FOIA against disclosure of law enforcement information on the ground that it would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy does not extend to corporations.” &151; SCOTUS blog


Sept. 17, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief in support of the Entertainment Merchants Association, a non-profit international trade group seeking to strike down a California law that could place an additional restriction on free speech. The case, Entertainment Merchants Association v. Schwarzenegger, regards a 2005 California law enforcing restrictions and labeling requirements on the sale or rental of "violent video games" to minors under 18.

Drafted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the amicus brief urges the Court to embrace a broad interpretation of First Amendment protections trumpeted in U.S. v. Stevens. It further argues that the Court should not eliminate First Amendment protection for violent speech just because new media has brought it to the forefront of the public’s mind. Finally, the brief explains the negative implications of a violent speech exception for journalists.

SPJ’s support of EMA’s effort demonstrates journalists’ concern over the impact a more limited First Amendment will have on their ability to report on the news.

Update June 27, 2011: The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 2005 law banning video games with violent images and themes, saying that the state’s attempt to create a new category of First Amendment regulation for minors was “unprecedented and mistaken.” &151; Media Coalition


April 30, 2010

SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund granted journalist Christopher Elliott $2,500 to assist him in a libel suit. A travel agency, Palm Coast Travel, took issue with a post related to the state’s investigation, which Elliott wrote in March 2009 on his website, elliott.org.

Elliott’s post originally stated that the State of Florida had filed a Notice of Intent to Issue a Cease and Desist Order against three travel agencies, including Palm Coast Travel, for selling unauthorized insurance policies. Elliott quoted a spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Financial Services about the case. However, the official misinformed Elliott, which was evident by the press release the state disseminated shortly thereafter. The release clarified that the travel agencies would be ordered to “stop selling insurance” as opposed to “stop transacting business,” as Elliott was originally told. He modified his original post the following day with a clarification and the statement, “I’ve updated the post to reflect that new information, and I apologize for any resulting confusion.”

Despite the clarification, Palm Coast Travel sued Elliott. The SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee and the SPJ Board of Directors voted to support Elliott, who is National Geographic Traveler’s ombudsman, is a syndicated columnist through Tribune Media Services, and is a columnist for MSNBC.com and The Washington Post.

Update June 26, 2010: The case was settled when Elliott apologized on his blog, and Palm Coast Travel’s president accepted. &151; Citizen Media Law Project


April 22, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that supports the Shepherdstown (W. Va.) Observer in its battle to attain records of petition signatures that should be public. County Clerk Jennifer Maghan decided not to release names of the petitioners who were calling for a referendum of a new zoning ordinance for the county, based her decision on the privacy concerns of the signatories to the petition.

The Jefferson County Circuit Court upheld her determination, and the Observer turned to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia to challenge the decision, arguing that the petitioners’ signatures should be public under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

SPJ joined the Reporters Committee in filing the brief that supports the Observer, which contests that the state’s preparation and retention of the records makes them subject to the West Virginia FOIA.

Update Sept. 28, 2010: The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the signatures must be released because a referendum petition is a public record when filed with a public body. &151; First Amendment Center


March 10, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief written by the Yale Supreme Court Clinic supporting the Prison Legal News’ appeal of a court order that denied the group access to trial information. The brief supports Prison Legal News, an independent magazine, which is arguing to a federal appellate court that it should receive access to trial exhibits that were once part of the public court record.

The brief argues that withholding trial documents because they had been returned to the prosecutor rather than remained in the court’s public file is inconsistent with the presumptive right of access to judicial documents. Also, it argues that restricting information because a prosecutor requested the documents back from the clerk constitutes de facto sealing of court records and could open the doors to similar requests in an effort to bar the media from public information.

Update Aug. 10, 2011: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled in favor of the government, finding that the use of the videos was limited disclosure, which does not automatically trigger general release under FOIA. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. &151; Prison Legal News


Jan. 11, 2010

SPJ joined an amicus brief with the Student Press Law Center, the College Media Advisers, Inc. and the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, urging an Illinois trial court to reject a state prosecutor’s subpoena of former Northwestern University journalism students under the state’s shield law.

The former students researched and reported the conviction of Anthony McKinney, who has been in prison for more than 30 years for murder, for the Innocence Project at Northwestern University. When the evidence provided by the students’ work convinced a Chicago judge to give McKinney another hearing, the Cook County state’s attorney subpoenaed information that included the students’ grades and e-mail communications.

The amicus brief asserts that when the student journalists were conducting their newsgathering for the project, they were “reporters” as defined by the Illinois Reporter’s Privilege Act. As such, the students are entitled to the Act’s protections.

Update Sept. 12, 2011: A Chicago judge ordered the professor and his students to hand over more than 500 emails, ruling that the students were acting as investigators for the case, not as journalists. —NPR


May 1, 2009

SPJ joined an amicus brief supporting the Associated Press in an effort to obtain records that could shed light on a conflict of interest for a former state Supreme Court chief justice. The requested records are emails between former Justice Elliott Maynard and Donald Blankenship, the CEO of a major coal company. The company, Massey Energy, was the subject of a suit pending before the state Supreme Court at the same time as the justice and Blankenship were exchanging e-mails and vacationed together in Monaco.

Justice Maynard ruled in favor of Massey Energy, but recused himself in a later appeal. He subsequently lost re-election. After learning of the contact between Justice Maynard and Blankenship, the AP requested e-mails through the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Although it received about half the requested documents, access to other e-mails was denied after the court ruled the remaining e-mails were not subject to state open records laws.

Update Nov. 13, 2009: The Virginia State Supreme Court ruled that public officials and public employees do not need to reveal personal email messages. Blankenship and Maynard were not required to hand over their email messages. &151; The New York Times


March 11, 2009

SPJ joined an amicus brief in a case surrounding the claim of former Staples, Inc. employee Alan Noonan, who was fired for allegedly falsifying expense reports. After Noonan’s dismissal, an executive sent an e-mail to approximately 1,500 employees explaining the circumstances of the termination and reminding employees of company policy for reporting expenses.

Noonan filed suit in a Massachusetts district court, claiming the e-mail was libelous and undertaken with intent to tarnish his reputation. Although the district court ruled in favor of Staples, reasoning that the charges set forth in the e-mail were indeed true and therefore not libelous, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit overturned the district court ruling on rehearing in February 2009. The appeals court, guided by a century-old Massachusetts statute, found that state law allows Noonan to recover, even though the contents of the e-mail were true, if a jury finds that Staples acted with ill will or malice by informing employees of Noonan’s misfeasance.

The amicus brief supports Staples’ right to report the truth.

Update Oct. 12, 2009: The 1st Circuit remanded the case to the lower court, where Staples was found to have no malice. The verdict was returned to the company’s favor. &151; MediaLaw


Aug. 3, 2009

The Legal Defense Fund Committee voted to give $1,000 to the Collegiate Times, the student newspaper at Virginia Tech, to support its cost of an open records lawsuit the newspaper filed in West Virginia. The award was granted Aug. 3, 2009.

SPJ President Dave Aeikens, SPJ President-Elect Kevin Smith, Freedom on Information Committee Chairman Dave Cuillier and Acting LDF Chairwoman Holly Fisher voted in favor of granting the request. Chairwoman Julie Kay was traveling out of the country and unavailable.

Kelly Furnas, the editorial adviser of The Collegiate Times, made the request for $1,000. The paper sued the West Virginia State Police for records related to the 10-year-old disappearance of a Virginia Tech student. Their request was denied under an exemption in West Virginia's open records law that allows police to deny release of records that are considered part of an ongoing investigation if they believe disclosure could harm the investigation. The newspaper does not believe the investigation would be harmed, and in fact, could help the investigation by making more information available to the public and possibly prompt new witnesses or details to emerge.


Jan. 8, 2009

SPJ voted unanimously to sign on to an amicus brief written by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The case, State of Nebraska v. Kinyoun, which is pending in the Nebraska Supreme Court, involves the intersection of the state open records law and HIPAA.

The amicus brief supports a county historical society in Nebraska that is seeking the names, dates of death, and patient numbers of more than 900 people buried on the grounds of a state mental hospital. All were patients at the hospital. The burials occurred between 1909 and 1959, and were in graves marked only with a patient number (there are no names on the graves.)

The historical society's request for the names and other key information was denied on the grounds that revealing the names of the deceased would reveal medical information about them (i.e., that they were in a mental hospital), thus invading their privacy. The trial court held that the names could not be released because of HIPAA and issued an opinion misapplying HIPAA.

This case has taken on greater importance than usual because only six reported decisions interpreting Nebraska's open records law and even fewer interpreting HIPAA and any state open records law. Every other state and federal court that has addressed this issue has said that where a state open records law allows the release of medical/death information, HIPAA will not prevent that release. This decision puts Nebraska out of sync with the rest of the country and HHS guidance on HIPAA.

The brief addresses the misapplication of HIPAA, the idea that death records are public in Nebraska, and the strong public interest in access to these names.


Nov. 24, 2008

The Legal Defense Fund joined an open-records case being fought by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Lakeland Times, at the request of the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. The case began after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel requested from the state the names of union-represented state employees who lost the privilege of driving state-owned vehicles because of traffic violations. The lower court denied the newspaper access based on a collective bargaining agreement between the Wisconsin State Employees Unions and the state. The agreement states that “the Employer [here the state] will not release information relating to the names … of employees covered by this Agreement to labor unions, labor organizations, local unions or the press….” The Lakeland Times also requested and was denied information from the state that included the names of Department of Natural Resources employees covered by the same agreement. Prior to the agreement, the information was available under the Wisconsin Open Records Law. The case is now on appeal.

The amicus brief argues that denying access to the information not only is an impermissible attempt to amend the open records law by contract, it violates the U.S. Constitution because the press is singled out in the agreement and treated differently that the public, which is prohibited under the First Amendment, and because the term “press” is impermissibly vague. Moreover, it argues that release of the names is in the public interest.


Oct. 23, 2008

The Legal Defense Fund jumped to the defense of Chicago freelance photographer Michael Anzaldi with a $1,000 grant, matched by the Chicago Deadline Club. In a case SPJ found particularly eggregious, Anzaldi was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and obstructing a police officer. Anzaldi was covering an incident in which an off-duty Chicago police officer shot and killed a man who allegedly tried to rob the officer on the South Side of Chicago.

Anzaldi says he was the first photographer on the scene and was shooting both video and still photographs from a yard across the street (with the property owner's permission). A CPD spokeswoman arrived and recognized Anzaldi. She requested that he stop filming and he complied. However, as the minutes wore on, the victim's family members or friends showed up on the scene and Anzaldi continued to take photographs. It was then, Anzaldi said, that the spokeswoman approached him and asked for his credentials. He told her that he did not have the credentials or other ID on him, but that both were in his car with his wallet and cell phone. Officers arrested him and confiscated his equipment.

Anzaldi was held for nine hours and charged before being released. His video camera and tape have not been returned. His still camera was returned when he was released, but the memory card was erased.

The official story from the CPD is that Anzaldi was arrested because he crossed police tape (which, incidentally, is permitted by the Chicago Municipal Code if a person has CPD credentials). Regardless, Anzaldi says he never crossed the tape and a Chicago judge dismissed the charges in January 2009.


Oct. 9, 2008

SPJ joined an amicus brief in the case Doe v. CARS, a case that no one even knew existed even though it had been going on for seven years. Doe v. CARS was an employment discrimination case. "Jane Doe" claims she was fired because she aborted a fetus with severe genetic problems.

The case has been going on for seven years, but it was kept completely secret until May 2008, when the Third Circuit issued an order saying the case could go forward. In two sentences at the end of the published, precedential opinion, the Third Circuit also affirmed a blanket sealing order so that the appellate opinion and two later orders remain the only public acknowledgment of the case’s existence. When The Legal Intelligencer moved to intervene and challenge the closure, the Circuit refused to allow them to intervene.

The Legal Intelligencer recently filed a petition for certiorari asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press drafted an amicus brief to their petition arguing that the Supreme Court should extend its previous holding on access to court hearings and records, which found a presumptive right of access to criminal cases, to civil cases like this one. The brief also asks the Court to clarify that a newspaper must at least be allowed to intervene in order to challenge closure. The journalism groups are arguing that the Third Circuit’s decision to completely seal the case with no discussion or factual findings highlights the need for the Court to recognize, once and for all, the constitutional right of access to civil proceedings and records.


Sept. 25, 2008

SPJ joined an amicus brief to help the Orange County Register, which is owned by Freedom Communications, fight off a prior restraint that was entered against it. SPJ was asked to do so by the The California Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the California First Amendment Coalition.

Freedom Communications was a defendant in a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit brought by its newspaper carriers. The trial judge entered an order forbidding The Register from reporting on what any witness says at the trial.

The order begins as a standard witness sequestration order. For example, it forbids the presence of non-expert witnesses in the courtroom during the testimony of other witnesses and prohibits witnesses and the parties from discussing one witness’s testimony with another. However, the judge then added a gag provision forbidding the parties (and thus The Register) from reporting any non-expert witness’s testimony during the trial, reasoning that such reporting might “taint” the other witnesses’ testimony. He did not explain how this case is different from any other in that regard, or how his order could possibly effectuate its stated purpose given that other media are not similarly gagged.


Sept. 8, 2008

The Legal Defense Fund approved a $1,000 grant to Brian Barnes, a storm chaser who was arrested after he pulled to the side of the road while chasing twisters in Texas. He is a regular, established freelancer who, while not on specific assignment, is a reliable contributor to news organizations.


Feb. 20, 2008

During the past few months the LDF Committee has granted two LDF requests for a total of $3,000. SPJ also, through the LDF Committee or with the LDF Committee’s assistance, has signed on to three amicus briefs, lent its names to comments/letters on three occasions and advised SPJ’s leadership. One LDF grant request was rejected. Read the full report here.


July 25, 2008

SPJ awarded a $200 grant to Justin McLaughlin of West Virginia University. McLaughlin is pursuing the applications from the West Virginia University Innocence Project, arguing that they are public under state law.


Feb. 7, 2007

The LDF committee voted to provide amicus support for Griffis vs Pinal County. It involves the suspension of Stanley Griffis from his job as county manager after he used public dollars to buy $21,000 worth of sniper rifles, ammunition and other related gear without approval. Phoenix Newspapers, which owns The Arizona Republic, is seeking 90 e-mail records from the time when state officials were investigating Griffis for this conduct.


Nov. 2, 2006

The LDF committee voted to provide amicus support and $1,000 for two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who were subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury. The two reporters have been pressed to reveal the identities of sources who leaked grand jury testimony concerning a highly publicized case concerning the use of steroids by professional athletes.


Sept. 27, 2006

The LDF committee approved a $500 grant to help pay for an amicus brief supporting The Boston Herald, which was sued by a judge after the newspaper reported the judge's controversial comments as recounted by other court officials who heard them.


Aug. 23, 2006

SPJ's national board of directors awarded the largest LDF grant ever given. The money went to Josh Wolf, a California blogger and freelance journalist who was imprisoned because he refused to provide the federal government with his unused video of a 2005 San Francisco riot. The $30,000 grant is to be used to pay Wolf's legal fees. SPJ President David Carlson negotiated with the law firm representing Wolf and helped broker a great deal for Wolf: SPJ would provide $31,000 of Wolf's legal expenses if the firm capped its fees at $60,000.


June 28, 2006

LDF provided a California TV freelance photographer $1,000 toward his fight to keep his tapes from the government. More


June 28, 2006

LDF gave $1,000 to the State News, the student paper at Michigan State University to support the paper's efforts to get the university to release an incident report on a campus assault.


June 6, 2006

LDF awarded $1,000 to the Salt Lake City Deseret Morning News to defray legal costs associated with filing a brief in the Utah Supreme Court. The case, Desert Morning News v. Salt Lake County, involves the paper’s right to obtain government records, which county government had sealed.

Marcia Rice, a former county clerk’s office employee, filed a complaint and lawsuit in 2003 alleging that a chief deputy clerk sexually harassed her in the workplace while the county clerk knew of the situation, but did nothing.

At issue is whether independent investigative reports into allegations of misconduct by high ranking government officials are public records under the Government Records Access Management Act.

After more than 100 hours of investigation, and at the expense of more than $11,000 in tax payer funds, two private attorneys released their report to the district attorney. The district attorney provided a summary to the victim, but refused to release the full report.

A district judge has ruled that the records are private, protected and public disclosure would have a “chilling effect upon witnesses’ and victims’ participation” in future investigations.


May 11, 2006

LDF committee votes to sign onto a letter from news organizations asking the governor of Arkansas to stop selectively excluding certain media from his press conferences.


April 28, 2006

SPJ agrees to support the Shield Law legislation authored by U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. The bill provides a qualified privilege for confidential sources and information in both criminal and civil contexts.


April 19, 2006

LDF committee votes to join an effort to oppose a gag effort in the case of Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the former chief of staff to vice president Dick Cheney.


Jan. 27, 2006

LDF approved $250 for an amicus brief supporting the New York Times in its lawsuit brought by Stephen Hatfill, a man under suspicion of mailing anthrax.


Oct. 24, 2005

LDF committee agrees to lend moral support to the National Press Photographers Association of New Jersey in its efforts to retain the rights to shoot photos in the subway system.

For more information about the Legal Defense Fund, please visit this link.

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