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SPJ Board votes to create Endowed Legal Defense Fund for journalists


September 4, 2014

David Cuillier, SPJ President, 520.248.6242, SPJDave@yahoo.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317.361.4134, jroyer@spj.org

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Society of Professional Journalists’ Board of Directors approved today a proposal to create an endowed Legal Defense Fund to ensure the organization can fight for press freedom well into the future.

“This fund creates a war chest so SPJ will always have a means to fight for press freedom, no matter the economy, the budget or the whims of donors,” said SPJ President David Cuillier. “Clearly, it isn’t getting any easier to fight for press rights today. It’s getting worse. Plaintiffs and government officials are more savvy at threatening journalists with libel suits, SLAPP suits and subpoenas. Government PIOs are more adept at managing the message, and officials are increasingly gaming freedom of information laws to increase secrecy at all levels of government.”

SPJ currently has a Legal Defense Fund, but it is not endowed. The need for this type of fund is great, Cuillier said in a memo to the SPJ Board of Directors.

“Reporters Without Borders now ranks the United States in press freedom at 46th in the world, behind such countries as Romania, El Salvador and Botswana. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer sustainable resources to litigate and advocate for press freedom.”

The already existing SPJ Legal Defense Fund helps some, but typical annual payouts of $10,000 have limited impact, and because the fund relies on the charity of SPJ members bidding at the annual LDF fundraising auction, it can be depleted. “We, as journalists and citizens, need a sustained war chest to push back and guarantee someone is always fighting for the First Amendment, forever,” Cuillier said.

The SPJ Board unanimously approved the creation of the fund at its meeting this morning at Excellence in Journalism 2014.

To launch the endowment, SPJ will shift $75,000 from the existing LDF account, leaving $75,000 available for typical LDF requests. The $75,000 freedom forever fund will then be leveraged with donations to get the endowment to $150,000. This base level would generate enough interest income to exceed the annual LDF auction revenues. The goal would be to get the endowment to $1 million within 10 years and keep building from there.

The key to build a substantial fund over time will be soliciting legacy gifts – to have journalists put the fund as a part of their wills. Cuillier pledged to commit $25,000 in his will toward the fund, and challenged others to do the same, or pledge a percentage of their estate.

“That money won’t help me when I’m dead, so I might as well have it help journalism,” he said.

The revenues generated from the fund could serve journalism in several ways, including:

• Lobbying Congress on the Freedom of Information Act, Shield Law, FERPA or any number of federal issues.
• Grants for other journalism organizations.
• Proactive litigation to establish better case law, and advocacy for better state freedom of information laws.
• Travel expenses to give out Black Hole awards and initiate other parachute offenses.
• Public education such as PSAs, advertising, school curriculum development and outreach.

The board agreed that creating an endowed fund will not be easy, and it will take time.

“It could take decades to develop, but if we start now, we might just see the benefits in our lifetime, and the effects will reverberate long after we are gone,” Cuillier said. “We have the chance to protect journalism forever.”

To pledge your support for the fund, contact Cuillier at SPJDave@yahoo.com.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information on SPJ, please visit www.spj.org. 


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