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SPJ: Proposed Gawker bankruptcy plan can’t leave journalists without legal protection


December 6, 2016

Lynn Walsh, SPJ National President, 614-579-7937, Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com
Rachel Semple, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 317-920-4785, rsemple@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – The Society of Professional Journalists has initiated a legal brief joined by 20 other media groups in support of the indemnification rights of Gawker journalists.

The proposed Chapter 11 Liquidation Plan for Gawker would remove the indemnification rights of former Gawker employees, no longer requiring Gawker to provide them legal defense if they were sued for actions taken in the course of their work. This leaves those journalists at risk of bearing their own legal defenses without assistance from the company or its insurers.

A “third-party release” provision proposed in the plan is a viable option to safeguard those journalists, SPJ argues in the amicus brief. Though it would prohibit any potential plaintiffs who have not yet brought forth claims from filing lawsuits against the employees after the bankruptcy has been finalized, there is concern that the court may remove this provision from the bankruptcy plan, leaving those journalists completely exposed.

"In their contracts with employees, Gawker included clauses that would have required the organization to provide a legal defense to its journalists if they were sued as part of their job. These types of clauses are standard at most media companies,” said Lynn Walsh, SPJ national president. “In the company's proposed bankruptcy plan, employees were losing their rights under this clause and instead provided a ‘third-party release’ that would prevent any additional lawsuits that have not yet been filed once the bankruptcy is finalized.”

“SPJ and other organizations are asking that this ‘third-party release’ be kept intact. If journalists cannot depend on these types of agreements they may not be as likely to produce and investigate stories," Walsh said.

Both First Amendment and policy reasons favor granting indemnification releases to journalists. If unable to rely on their indemnification agreements, journalists will be subjected to the high cost of personal liability while in pursuit of information critical to the public. Without these protections, journalists will be less able to engage in the public service of journalism ensured by the First Amendment. If this plan is approved without indemnification rights or third party releases, Gawker itself would retain the protection of the bankruptcy laws, but individual journalists would be left exposed to potentially crippling lawsuits.

Read the full amicus brief here.

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