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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.

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Legal Defense Fund Committee Chair

Hagit Limor
Professor of Electronic Media, University of Cincinnati
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.

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FOI FYI: SPJ’s FOI Committee Blog
– When POTUS wants journalism to be a crime, he tweets
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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

Gideon Grudo
Digital Platforms Editor
Air Force Magazine
Bio (click to expand) picture Grudo is currently the digital platforms editor at Air Force Magazine, a DC-based, independent monthly. He was previously on the board of SPJ DC and on the national SPJ board. Before moving to DC in 2013, Grudo was editor of South Florida Gay News and worked on the board of SPJ Florida, spearheading multiple programs on a national level and helping run related conventions.

Home > Legal Defense Fund > LDF in Action

Legal Defense Fund
LDF in action

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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.

August 24, 2016: Access to Police Records — Grabell v. NYPD

The Committee joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a case involving application of the New York Freedom of Information law. A ProPublica reporter sought documents relating to the use of NYPD surveillance vehicles known as “Z-backscatter x-ray vans.” We signed onto an amicus brief last year when the case was before an intermediate appellate court; that court ruled that most of the records did not have to be released. We support the reporter’s effort to get an appeal to New York’s highest court, joining the Reporters Committee’s amicus brief. We all are arguing (1) that much of the information concerning the “Z-backscatter” is already publicly available, in contradiction of a key NYPD affidavit, and (2) the importance to the press and the public of access to law enforcement records.

August 17, 2016: Reporters’ Privilege/ Shield Law

The Committee joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in a case involving a New York Times reporter whom a judge tried to compel to disclose nonconfidential but unpublished information obtained during the newsgathering process. We support reporter Frenchie Robles bid to overturn the New York Supreme Court’s decision that would require her to turn over her unpublished notes and to testify about a jailhouse interview with a murder defendant. Robles is challenging the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the New York Shield Law, which she — and we — claim protects reporters from being forced to testify against their sources.

July 28, 2016: Reporters’ Privilege

We joined RCFP again in an amicus brief related to the military court martial of Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who was held captive in Afghanistan. Journalist and filmmaker Mark Boal interviewed Bergdahl after his release, and portions of those interviews were played on season two of the Serial podcast. The military is now planning to subpoena Boal for his notes and recordings as part of its court martial proceedings. Boal is fighting the subpoena, and the amicus brief supports his efforts to invoke the reporter’s privilege. The brief argues that Boal deserves the protection of the privilege whether he is working in documentary film or in traditional journalism. It also argues that Boal should be allowed to seek protection from a federal district court (=rather than having to proceed through the military justice system.

July 28, 2016: NYPD Bodycam Policy

The Committee joined RCFP in submitting comments on the New York Police Department’s draft policy on its bodycam videos. The proposal acknowledged that the videos are subject to New York’s Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) but we found areas in which the policy could be strengthened. One example: we want the policy to clarify that if only a portion of a video is exempt from FOIL, the rest of the video should be redacted and released. Our comments emphasized the importance of proactive disclosures of footage showing serious use of force by police.

July 13, 2016: FOIA — State Department Emails

We signed onto a letter from the Associated Press and Reporters Committee asking a federal judge to reconsider his decision in a FOIA lawsuit against the U.S. State Department. The advocacy group Judicial Watch Inc. sought State Department records related to Huma Abedin, the adviser to Hillary Clinton. The case was dismissed in 2014 but reopened in 2015 after reports surfaced of Clinton’s use of a private email account to conduct governmental business while Secretary of State. Judicial Watch has taken depositions of various State Department officials regarding the agency’s handling of FOIA requests that potentially implicated Clinton’s and Abedin’s emails. The presiding judge issued an order preventing the videos of the depositions from being released to the public. Our letter explains the enormous public interest in the depositions and argues that audiovisual copies of depositions should be unsealed and available for public inspection when those depositions relate to high-ranking officials’ duties on a matter of public concern.

July 5, 2016: Global Injunction

This highly unusual, potentially precedent-setting non-media case caught our interest because the concept of global injunction could be used against the media, not just Google as in this case. We joined the Reporters Committee in a motion to intervene in s case in which a Canadian court ordered Google to de-list some web sites worldwide. Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Morgan Jack involves the theft of trade secrets in the networking device market. As part of the proceedings, a British Columbia court issued an injunction requiring Google to de-list from its search database any of the websites that were used by the defendants to sell their products. The court found that an injunction applying only to Canada would not sufficiently protect the plaintiff, Equustek, so the court made the scope of the injunction global. The case is now pending before the Canada Supreme Court. We argued that a court should not be allowed to impose a single nation’s standards on Internet-published speech around the globe.

June 27, 2016: Gag Law

We joined the Reporters Committee in a constitutional challenge to Idaho’s “ag gag” law, which criminalizes audio and video recording at agricultural facilities. This overbroad law can be read to cover any type of “growing” or “planting” operation, even on public property. The Animal Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to expose abuses in agricultural operations, brought a lawsuit arguing that the statute is unconstitutional under the First Amendment because it is a content-based restriction on speech. A federal trial court ruled in favor of the ALDF, and the case is now on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Our brief urges the appellate court to uphold the lower court’s finding that the statute violates the First Amendment, as the law interferes with not only activists like the ALDF, but also with investigative journalism and newsgathering.

June 9, 2016: National Security Letters

We signed onto an amicus from from the Reporters Committee in Freedom of the Press Foundation v. U.S. Department of Justice. The nonprofit Foundation made a FOIA request seeking information about the government’s use of administrative subpoenas known as “national security letters” and “exigent letters.” The FBI has used these types of letters to get telephone records of journalists — for instance, in the course of leak investigations. The foundation wanted to see the policies and procedures governing how the FBI uses such letters to obtain journalists’ communications. The government has argued that these policies and procedures may be withheld under four different FOIA exemptions. The case is pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. The amicus brief provides background on the recent amendments to DOJ’s News Media Guidelines, which constrain the FBI’s ability to target journalists using formal subpoenas and search warrants. The brief also emphasizes that, because “national security letters” lack safeguards that typically protect First Amendment rights, transparency about how the FBI uses this form of legal process is essential.

May 30, 2016: Anti-SLAPP

SPJ joined dozens of news organizations in an amicus brief in Tobinick v Novella, a federal defamation suit between two doctors after one posted articles to a medical blog disputing the other’s claims about treatments for Alzheimer’s disease. The judge dismissed most of the suit under California’s SLAPP Act, applying state Anti-Slapp statues to a federal case. We urged the U.S. Court of Appeals now hearing the case to uphold that decision saying the Anti-SLAPP Act should apply to safeguard against lawsuits challenging protected speech.

May 30, 2016: Public Records

We also joined an amicus in Friedman v. Rice, a public records case under the New York Freedom of Information Law. An intermediate appellate court concluded that non-testifying witness statements given to law enforcement are categorically exempt from disclosure under the law’s exemption for confidential sources. The case is now on appeal to the New York Court of Appeals. The amicus brief highlights the media’s interest in this issue and argues that the lower court’s interpretation of the confidential source exemption is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent and the decisions in other New York cases.

May 7, 2016: Libel / Actual Malice - Kelley v. Wren

We filed a brief to the South Carolina Supreme Court in a libel suit against The Sun News, a newspaper that published a series of reports about suspicious campaign contributions funneled through limited-liability companies. In one article, the journalist reported on a meeting in which a lobbyist delivered $84,000 in campaign contributions to a candidate for governor. The lobbyist sued, arguing that the sentence implied he had personally made the contributions, which would have been illegal. The journalist testified he merely intended that the lobbyist was present at the meeting. Other articles in the series made clear that the lobbyist did not physically hand over the contributions and did not break the law. Nonetheless, the jury found in favor of the lobbyist, and a state appellate court recently affirmed the verdict. Our brief to the Supreme Court argues that the lower court disregarded the well-established law that requires a public-figure plaintiff to show clear and convincing evidence that the defendant subjectively harbored serious doubts about what he was publishing. We hold that if the lower court ruling is allowed to stand, it will create confusion in South Carolina defamation law and chill journalism.

May 2, 2016: Public Records / License Plate Scanners

We joined 12 other media organizations in an amicus brief in a California case, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California v. Superior Court. A state appeals court ruled that data collected by Automated License Plate Reader (“ALPR”) systems which police use to automatically scan license plates of all nearby cars, then cross-reference to the plates of stolen cars, should not be disclosed under the California Public Records Act. The court cited an exemption for law enforcement investigatory records. We argued in a brief to the California Supreme Court that ALPR records do not qualify as “investigatory” because they are not gathered for use in connection with any specific criminal investigation. Our brief holds that journalists rely on public records requests to report on law enforcement agencies, and any ruling that expands the exemption for investigatory records would hamper press access to public information.

April 25, 2016: Public Records

In our biggest award this year, the Society’s full board agreed with the LDF to award $10,000 to support The Lens, a nonprofit publication fighting the city of New Orleans over access to a database tracking public purchases. Despite Louisiana’s public records law that mandates government agencies provide access to public documents within three days if those documents are currently in use, the city has waited until public records requesters filed suit to produce requested documents on the eve of the court hearing, knowing most citizens and newspapers can’t sue every time they request public records. The Lens sued the city to deter this strategy. In March, a judge ordered the city to produce the full database and rejected the city’s contention that producing it might release private information but the city is appealing the judge’s ruling on the database. The declaratory judgment condemning the city’s practice of unresponsiveness is pending before a trial court.

February 29, 2016: Right of Publicity - Maloney v. T3Media

The committee joined the Reporters Committee in a lawsuit brought by college basketball players against a company that operated an online photo library containing thousands of photos of NCAA athletes and sporting events. The company allowed members of the public to purchase non-exclusive licenses of the photos. By purchasing these licenses, members of the public could download copies of the photos for their personal use.

College athletes who appeared in the photos sued in California, arguing that the display and licensing of the photos violated their “right of publicity,” which allows individuals to control the commercial use of their name and likeness. The trial court dismissed the case, but did not address any First Amendment issues. It is now on appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The amicus brief argued that California’s publicity statute is a content-based restriction on speech and must be interpreted narrowly so that it does not interfere with expressive conduct or the media’s ability to report the news. In essence, if courts allow individuals to exercise unbridled control over the use of their images, the “right of publicity” will be transformed into a right of censorship.

January 27, 2016: Public Records - Gilleran v. Township of Bloomfield

The committee signed onto a Reporters Committee amicus brief involving a request under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act for access to surveillance footage from a pole-mounted, stationary camera.

The town government argued the video footage should be subject to a blanket exemption from the open records act because it captured comings-and-going at the town hall, where there is also a police station. These arguments could implicate public access to police recordings including dash cams and body cams. The trial court and an appellate court both rejected the town’s arguments and found that the footage had to be released. This brief urged the New Jersey Supreme Court to affirm that ruling.

January 26, 2016: Sunshine Law — State of Florida

The committee and SPJ as a whole signed onto a Reporters Committee letter to the Florida legislature objecting to two bills that would alter Florida’s Sunshine Law. The bills would no longer make mandatory the reimbursement of attorneys’ fees when a public-records requester is successful in litigation against a government agency.

House Bill 1021 and Senate Bill 1220 would convert the current mandatory fee-shifting provision in Florida's Sunshine Law into a permissive fee-shifting provision.

December 24, 2015 Actual Malice - Angel v. Winograd

The committee voted to join a Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press amicus brief to fight back against a court ruling that would severely constrain the ability of the press to effectively expose government deception and would be inconsistent with the long-held standard for actual malice established in 1964 by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

Tawni Angel, the owner of a business that used to operate a petting zoo and pony rides in Santa Monica, California, sued Marcy Winograd, a local animal-rights activist who had led protests against Angel’s business. Winograd filed an “anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation)” motion asking the trial court to dismiss the case, but the court allowed it to proceed. The judge said there was evidence Winograd spoke with “actual malice” when she criticized Angel’s business.

The brief contended that the trial court misapplied the actual malice standard, which requires a public-figure plaintiff suing for defamation to show that the defendant knowingly made false statements or recklessly disregarded the truth.

The trial court concluded that Winograd spoke with actual malice merely because her statements contradicted the findings of local animal-control officers. That failed to take into account Winograd’s good-faith, subjective belief — based on her own personal observations — that the animal-control officers were wrong. This interpretation of actual malice would hamper the practice of journalists, subjecting who expresses disagreement with a government official’s findings to a possible defamation lawsuit.

The ruling is currently on appeal to the California Court of Appeal, and the amicus brief reiterates the proper actual malice test.

December 17, 2015: Actual Malice: Angel v. Winograd

We joined the Reporters Committee in an amicus speaking out in a defamation lawsuit in California. Tawni Angel, the owner of a business that used to operate a petting zoo and pony rides in Santa Monica sued Marcy Winograd, a local animal-rights activist who led protests against Angel’s business. Winograd filed an “anti-SLAPP” motion, asking the trial court to dismiss the case, but the court allowed it to proceed, ruling that there was “sufficient evidence” that Winograd spoke with “actual malice” when she criticized Angel’s business.

We held that the trial court misapplied the actual malice standard, which says public-figure plaintiffs suing for defamation must show that the defendant knowingly made false statements or recklessly disregarded the truth. Here, the trial court concluded that Winograd spoke with actual malice merely because her statements were inconsistent with the findings of local animal-control officers. That ruling failed to take into account Winograd’s good-faith, subjective belief — based on her own personal observations — that the animal-control officers were wrong.

The ruling is currently on appeal to the California Court of Appeal, and the amicus brief explains that the interpretation of actual malice adopted by the trial court would hamper the practice of journalism, because under the trial court’s reasoning, anyone who expresses disagreement with a government official’s findings could be subject to a defamation lawsuit. This could severely constrain the ability of the press to “effectively expose deception in the government” and “preserve the even greater values of freedom of expression and the right of the people to know.”

November 10, 2015: Restrictive press credentials: Open letter to Entertainers

The committee joined various media groups, including the Newspaper Association of America and the National Press Photographers Association in signing an “open letter” to entertainers after some onerous credentialing requirements imposed on journalists covering their shows.

Janet Jackson recently set a list of conditions for journalists covering her current world tour, including the right to pre-approve all photos before they are published, a demand that she be the legal co-owner of any photos taken, along with restricting photos to 30 seconds during the first and second songs only. Other celebrities and sports teams also have imposed similar restrictions, which fly in the face of the important principle that photojournalists are the sole owners of their own intellectual property. The issue is particularly important for freelancers, who may often feel that they have no choice but to sign these credentialing agreements. The open letter calls for an end to these practices.

November 10, 2015: FOIA: Hamdan v. Department of Justice

The committee joined the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the case of a U.S. citizen and resident of Lebanon who made a FOIA request after being detained and tortured by the United Arab Emirates. Naji Jawdat Hamdan requested documents from the FBI related to any U.S. role in his detention. A federal court in California granted summary judgment to the government, and an Appeals panel affirmed the ruling. The ACLU, representing Hamdan, is seeking a rehearing by the full Court of Appeals.

The amicus brief says the court rubber-stamped the FBI’s claim that the records are classified and exempt from FOIA based on national security concerns. We hold that courts are supposed to closely scrutinize agencies’ classification claims to avoid over-classification. The brief aims to avoid setting a bad precedent.

October 13, 2015: Public Records: Request for support from ProPublica

The LDF Committee joined The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in supporting the case of ProPublica journalist Michael Grabell. He requested public records from the New York City Police Department about its purchase of a controversial police vehicle known as the “Z-backscatter van.” The van is an unmarked vehicle that uses an x-ray device to detect drugs or bomb-making equipment inside buildings or other vehicles. It emits high levels of radiation and also raises privacy concerns. The NYPD denied Grabell’s entire request, saying any disclosure would jeopardize criminal investigations. In December 2014, a New York trial court rejected the NYPD’s argument and ordered the department to produce records about the van. The department is now appealing that order.

The committee is urging the appellate court to affirm the trial court’s decision. We hold that much reporting already is widely available about the backscatter vans, undermining the NYPD’s argument that absolute secrecy is necessary. Equally important, the New York Freedom of Information Law supports press reporting on issues of public concern such as this case, in which the backscatter x-ray technology could pose serious health risks to the public.

September 29, 2015: Public Records: North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst

The committee unanimously approved joining an amicus brief with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey and the New Jersey Press Association in the public records case North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst.

The New Jersey Supreme Court is hearing a lower court appeal that allowed police to withhold records relating to the fatal shooting by an officer of 23-year-old Kashad Ashford in September 2014. The LDF held that access to law enforcement records is paramount and that a government agency’s press release is not acceptable as a substitute for records.

The high court will rule on the scope of the “criminal investigatory records” exception and the “ongoing investigations” exemption of New Jersey’s OPRA. The LDF holds that the press or public must have the opportunity to examine the underlying government records in order to fulfill the state law’s mandate for transparency in government.

In this case, the State’s press release and written reports by law enforcement officials presented inconsistent accounts of what led to this fatal shooting. Without access to the records, it’s impossible to resolve these inconsistencies to determine if the police had a reasonable belief of imminent danger and acted appropriately.

September 12, 2015: Gag Order: State of Texas ex rel. Abelino Reyna

The committee unanimously approved joining an amicus brief with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in the case of State of Texas ex rel. Abelino Reyna,

The state of Texas filed criminal charges against Matthew Clendennen,
one of the many motorcyclists arrested in May after a deadly shootout between rival biker gangs in Waco. The judge handling Clendennen’s trial issued a broad gag order that barred anyone involved in his criminal case from discussing it with the media. The order is so broad it even prevents witnesses or law enforcement officials from making statements to the media that are already part of the public record. The judge claimed he was trying to prevent pre-trial publicity.

Clendennen challenged the gag order. LDF agrees with the Reporters Committee that gag orders cause harm by restricting the flow of accurate, newsworthy information about matters of immense public interest. We also hold that the Texas constitution requires gag orders in criminal trials to be examined under a rigorous legal standard unmet in this case. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is now deciding whether to vacate the order or leave it intact. The decision will likely establish the legal standard that will apply to all gag orders in criminal cases under Texas law.

August 27, 2015: North Jersey Media Group v Township of Lyndhurst

The committee joined an amicus brief (with the Reporters Committee, the ACLU of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Press Association) that is to be filed in the New Jersey Supreme Court in North Jersey Media Group v. Township of Lyndhurst, a public records case. The case is on appeal from a lower court ruling allowing the government to withhold the records.

August 27, 2015: Letter regarding “right to be forgotten”

The committee signed on to a letter written by the Reporter Committee to CNIL, the French administrative agency that regulates data privacy. CNIL issued an order in May requiring Google to enforce the EU’s newly recognized “right to be forgotten” across all Google domain names (not just its European domains such as and Under the order, if a French citizen asks Google to remove a search result pursuant to the right to be forgotten, Google will have to delist that result from all versions of its search engine around the globe. Although the right to be forgotten and the EU’s delisting requirements do not apply directly to news organizations, journalists have cause to be concerned about the extraterritorial application of laws and privacy regulations that inhibit the free flow of information. If France prevails here, other nations could follow suit and attempt to impose globally their own domestic restraints on internet speech, all in the name of protecting their own citizens.

August 17, 2015: Ferguson Letter from Media

The committee also signed on to a letter written by the Reporters Committee to the prosecutor in Ferguson, Missouri to object to the recent decision to pursue criminal charges against several journalists who were arrested during the Ferguson protests last summer. The journalists were detained during the protests merely for videotaping the police or otherwise doing their jobs, and prosecutors have decided to press charges a year later. The letter emphasizes the important First Amendment issues at stake and reminds the prosecutor’s office that reporters have a right to record the police. It urges the prosecutor’s office to drop the charges against the journalists.

August 17, 2015: Competitive Enterprise Institute v. Office of Science and Technology Policy

The committee joined an amicus request from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press on behalf of numerous media organizations. The case involves a FOIA request to the OSTP, an executive branch agency that advises the president on science issues. It turns out that the requested records were stored in the personal e-mail account of the OSTP’s director. The OSTP refused to turn over the records, and the trial court upheld that refusal. The court found that an agency’s refusal to release e-mails from a personal e-mail account did not meet the definition of a “withholding” in violation of FOIA. That ruling poses obvious dangers to the right of access under FOIA, and the case is on appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

August 10, 2015: Journalist Request vs. Local Police Department

The committee denied an “emergency” request for $10,000 for a court hearing scheduled the next day. The request came from a New Jersey journalist who claimed he is being harassed by a local police department. Charlie Kratovil claimed he was arrested on another charge in retaliation for his critical reporting as editor of online newspaper New Brunswick (NJ) Today. The committee voted to deny his emergency request for a court date about which he knew months ahead, as it made any evaluation of the underlying facts difficult, but we encouraged him to resubmit his request after the case was resolved for potential reimbursement of actual court costs and legal fees.

July 21, 2015: NYPD Freedom of Information “Glomar” challenge

The committee joined an amicus request from the Reporters Committee supporting a New York City imam who filed a request under New York’s Freedom of Information Law for all NYPD records pertaining to surveillance of his mosque. The NYPD would not supply any records, invoking a legal doctrine from the federal FOIA known as the “Glomar doctrine.” This doctrine originally allowed federal agencies to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of records involving covert military operations in order to protect national security. Federal agencies increasingly have been using the doctrine to refuse to respond to many other, non-military types of FOIA requests. However, this is the first Glomar-type response at the state level. If the courts uphold the NYPD’s Glomar denial, it would weaken New York’s freedom-of-information law and could set a precedent for other states to begin allowing their own agencies to refuse to confirm or deny the existence of government records. The amicus brief to New York appeals court challenges a trial court finding that the NYPD’s response was proper.

March 18, 2015: NFOIC Partnership

The committee commented per President Dana Neuts' request on a proposed partnership between SPJ and the National Freedom of Information Coalition in litigating for access to public records. As authored by former president Dave Cuillier, "Both organizations will seek out worthy cases and, when agreed upon, team up to provide court fees through NFOIC and attorney fees through SPJ, as well as joint publicity to highlight the need for government transparency and set strong case law nationally... Together, NFOIC and SPJ can be more effective by combining efforts to support important access cases through cooperation and coordination."

February 19, 2015: Krakauer v. State of Montana

The committee joined the Student Press Law Center in an amicus brief over an open records case before the Montana Supreme Court. The case involves access to campus disciplinary appeal records in a sex assault case involving a University of Montana football player in 2012. Author Jon Krakauer, working on a book about sexual assaults at universities, was looking for records from the hearing that found the player "responsible." The university chancellor overturned the disciplinary decision. Krakauer won at trial a limited application of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act but he U.S. Department of Education filed a brief supporting the university that student disciplinary files are always protected from disclosure by FERPA. In this amicus, SPJ, SPLC and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argue for the lower court’s limited interpretation of FERPA.

February 3, 2015: U.S. v. Blankenship

The committee voted to join the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the press in an amicus brief supporting the Associated Press, NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the Charleston Gazette and Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. The news organizations intervened to challenge the sealing of information in a West Virginia criminal trial after a deadly mine disaster in 2010 . Ex-Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship was charged with conspiracy to violate federal mine safety and health standards at the Upper Big Branch mine. The district court sealed records and issued a gag order. The news organizations appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. A federal judge is delaying Blankenship’s trial until April 20.

January 16, 2015: North Wind newspaper at Northern Michigan University

The LDF committee stood at the ready to help a collegiate newspaper (referred by Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center) held hostage by a FOIA request, asked to front $150 of a bill for what should have been free public documents from their university. The editor and adviser (Cheryl Reed) at the North Wind newspaper at Northern Michigan University had requested emails of six university administrators. NMU administrators sent a bill of $613 to the campus newspaper even though the request is covered under the state Freedom of Information Act. The students pared their request but still faced a $300 tab. The university's student media board denied funding because "they're not convinced the reporters are pursuing a meritorious story." Coincidentally, one of the members of that board who voted down the expense is also one of the administrators whose emails were FOIA'd. SPJ was ready to write the check when the school's president backed down, waived all fees and released the requested documents at no charge.

October 15, 2014: National Council of Teachers Quality Inc. v. Curators of the University of Missouri

The LDF Committee joined the SPLC in an amicus request before the Missouri Supreme Court to appeal a decision by a lower Missouri Court of Appeals that denied an education watchdog group’s public records request to the University of Missouri seeking access to class syllabi. The Court of Appeals held that the records request was properly denied on copyright grounds, saying the Copyright Act prohibits the University from making copies of these or any other public records protected by copyright. The court ruled the act of duplication is itself an infringement. The amicus argues that this is a dangerous precedent for FOI laws. If allowed to stand, any email, letter or memo could be equally subject to an assertion of copyright protection. This could severely hamper the work of data journalists seeking to analyze large databases.

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 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’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 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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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.

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