Legal Defense Fund
History of the Legal Defense Fund
About the Legal Defense Fund
The Society's Legal Defense Fund is 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. Learn more about the fund, including how you can request an LDF grant, here.
Money to finance what its leaders and members hoped to accomplish in fighting for First Amendment rights had always been the Societys major stumbling block. The problem in the early day had been the societys stumbling block. The problem in the early days had been overcome to some extent by capitalizing on the massive reserve of volunteers within the organization and non-members who were proselytized by SPJ, SDX officers and professional staff. Hurst remembers that while no formal legal defense fund existed when he took office in 1962, there were funds earmarked in the Societys operating budget for assisting member and non-member journalists, campus and professional chapters and the commercial and student news media in freedom of information litigation. The amounts were small - $100 to $300 in most cases. With the exception of the years when contributions to such cases as those involving Annette Buchanan, the Nebraska Press Association and the Stanford Daily, total allocations for a year rarely exceeded $1,000. One must remember, Hurst said, $250 bought a lot of services especially in the light of additional contributed services. If you got to a problem in time and resolved it before it became a full-blown legal case, as we often did, a small amount of money plus the available expertise was enough. It is easy to overlook the fact that those contributed services by members and others over the years probably amounted to millions of dollars. By the early 1970s, the board noted the significance of the work being done by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and made annual contributions to its work. The board also made special grants from its operating funds for freedom of information research and cataloging of cases, its most prominent contribution being an annual allocation to the Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri.
When the cases of William Farr and Peter Bridge gained national attention in 1972 and chapters, along with individual members, began making contributions to be used in those and other cases, the Societys board of directors, meeting in Dallas November 15, formally established the Sigma Delta Chi Legal Fund, later to be referred to as the Legal Defense Fund. On a motion by national secretary Ralph Otwell and seconded by Region Seven director Bill Kong, the board opened the fund with the $1,600 on hand and used an invitation to chapters and members to add to it. By April 1973, the fund had reached $6,000, much of that coming on the basis of the Farr and Bridge publicity. With dollars on hand and coming in for the Legal Defense Fund, the board was able, for a while, to increase the number of grants, although the amounts remained small. As an example, responding to calls for help on legal cases, in May 1975 the board allocated $732 to participate with RTDNA in an appeal of the NBC pensions case; gave $200 to aid the Northern Star, a student newspaper at Northern Illinois University, in its effort to obtain compliance by university officials with the state open meetings law; provided $200 to the Greater Miami professional chapter, which was supporting a Washington Post-Newsweek petition to change Floridas rules to permit television and still cameras and sound recording devices in courtrooms; voted $200 to the Texas Observer, an independent bi-weekly newspaper fighting a $5 million libel action. In November of that year, the board voted grants of $200 each from the Legal Defense Fund to aid the Nebraska, Des Moines and Mid-Carolina chapters in freedom of information cases and another $200 to assist Dan Hicks, Jr., crusading editor of the Monroe County Observer, Madisonville, Tennessee, in his effort to survive attempts to force him out of business. While it was clearly the publicity surrounding the major national FOI cases that caused chapters and members to make contributions, the majority of dollars moving out of the Legal Defense Fund went to assist with relatively obscure cases. Further, while those prominent cases happened irregularly, those small, but important local cases kept coming week after week. The grant of $500 to help in the Stanford Daily case in April 1978, brought the Legal Defense Fund down to $600.
It was with this news that the officers went to Birmingham in November hoping to raise some interest among the delegates to the national convention in replenishing the fund. What happened there couldnt have been predicted even by the most optimistic officers. The Thursday, November 16, luncheon featured Farber as the major speaker and the announcement of the outstanding campus and processional chapters for the year. When Ohio University was named the top campus chapter for 1978, its president, Alan Alder, rushed to the podium to receive a certificate and a check for $100. Perhaps inspired by Farbers speech or simply by the established need, Alder returned the $100 something his or any campus chapter could have used for the local activities saying that it should go to the Legal Defense Fund. Before the thunderous applause from a standing audience had subsided, Region Six deputy director and Milwaukee Journal reporter David Offer saw and opportunity and send a note to the podium asking that all professional and campus chapters from Wisconsin meet briefly after the luncheon. In that meeting, Offer suggested that those chapters and the individual members follow up on Ohio Universitys contribution to the Fund and make their own donations. By late afternoon, Landau and Aiken, along with Akron, Ohio, attorney David Lieberth, sounded the FOI alarm in their panel and the several hundred delegates who attended walked away disturbed, if not distressed, at the outlook for freedom of information. That evening, Neuharths biting address brought the message home again. When it was time for Offer to go to the podium, he put the money in a breadbasket from one of the banquet tables and took the Wisconsin contribution to the microphone. Mentioning the Ohio University contribution and what the Wisconsin delegates had done, he encouraged the other chapters and individuals to make their own donations to help build the Legal Defense Fund. Operation Breadbasket was under way. Within minutes, table after table sent a representative to the podium each carrying a breadbasket filled with checks and cash contributions from one to twenty dollars. Offer, along with other persons on the stage and in the crowd, became cheerleaders: in a pep-rally atmosphere and excitement filled the room as the dollars mounted. By the time the dinner meeting ended, delegates and their chapters had poured more than $2,000 into the Legal Defense Fund, a figure which would climb to $2,600 by the conventions final session. It was the single largest boost given the fund since it had been established six years earlier.
The enthusiasm for building the fund spilled out of Birmingham, carried by delegates to their home chapters, and thousands of more dollars flowed to the Societys Chicago headquarters. Nearly every regional conference in early 1979 repeated the Operation Breadbasket effort. While only between 100 and 200 delegates attended any given regional conference, the dollar amounts grew and grew, each conference challenged by the preceding regional meeting. Region Two raised $339; Region Six, $700. Region Eight director Phil Record, joined by national secretary, Howard Graves, preached commitment and sacrifice for the Legal Defense Fund at the Region Eight conference like and evangelist preparing a crowd at a revival to do battle with the Devil, the delegates in Huntsville, Texas, contributed more than $900. Record and Graves took their preachin and shoutin for FOI to Region Nine in Denver, Colorado, and the result was a $1,300 boost for the fund. By the rime the last regional conference was history, Operation Breadbasket had raised an additional sum of $4,000.
Back home in the local chapter meetings, the drive had almost as much enthusiasm. Two chapters sold Warren Burgers. The San Francisco State University campus chapter barbecued Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger at a student activities fair and raised $50 selling hamburgers and burn ointment urging students to, Buy a Warren Burger Help put the bite back in the First Amendment. Professional chapters turned over profits from newsmaker luncheons and gridiron shows to the fund. The June Quill reported that twenty-nine campus chapters and twenty-six professional chapters had made contributions, which, along with a $5,000 donation from Harte-Hanks Newspapers, brought the total to more than $29,000. What had been a $600 Legal Defense Fund balance a year had swelled to more than $30,000 by mid-summer 1979. While the magic of the excitement emanating from the Birmingham convention waned somewhat and Operation Breadbasket with it, drives for the Legal Defense Fund continued into the 1980s. Hundreds of individual members contributed each year and chapters made support of the fund an annual project. Special events were scheduled at national conventions nearly every year. A celebrity memorabilia auction at the 1981 convention in Washington, DC raised $4,115 and The First Amendment Follies, produced at the 1982 Milwaukee convention by Joann Noto, Central Michigan University; Jim Corbett, University of South Carolina; Sharon Applebaum, University of Kansas; and John Allison, California State University at Long Beach, campus representatives on the national board, raised nearly $4,000 for the Legal Defense Fund.
Again, in 1983, chapters and individual members answered the call for the Legal Defense Fund. In three cities Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles special benefit pre-release showings of the major motion picture, Under Fire, netted more than $5,500 for the Legal Defense Fund. Fund chairman Mike Hammer noted in his report to the board in November 1983, that more than $20,000 had been raised since the previous convention, not including a special series of fund raisers at the San Francisco convention which brought in another $2,000 plus.
The sometime Sigma Delta Chi Legal Fund of 1972, dependent for its limited resources on occasional small contributions, had become an established and viable part of the Societys freedom of information campaign. While the money kept coming in through the early 1980s, the dollars were, just as quickly, being directed not only toward individual cases as in the past, but into such projects as the FOI Service Center and funding for the Societys First Amendment counsel.