Introduction

On a Sunday afternoon in March 1970, a group of journalists and media lawyers, concerned over FBI attempts to find the sources for journalists’ reports on radical groups, gathered at Georgetown University to create an organization that would be available around the clock to provide legal assistance to any working reporter, anywhere in the United States, without charge.

Since that founding meeting, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has been just what its name implies — an organization dedicated first to the interests of the reporter. From the start, the medium of communication and the means of employment have not mattered. The committee has helped all those who take it as their mission to inform the public about current events.

For 40 years, The Reporters Committee has carried out that vision, giving legal advice to thousands of journalists and producing publications to help them do their jobs.

The First Amendment Handbook is one of those publications. First produced in 1986, and updated regularly since then, this booklet is designed to provide a basic primer on the laws affecting reporters’ rights to gather and disseminate news.

At a time when newsgathering techniques are under increasing scrutiny, courts order journalists to jail for refusing to disclose confidential sources, government officials are finding new ways to close down access to public information in the name of national security, and big business tries to intimidate news organizations by filing lawsuits based on novel tort theories ranging from fraud to breach of duty of loyalty, American journalists need to be aware of the many potential pitfalls that await them, and of how they might avoid them. They need to know their rights, and how to fight back when they are threatened. The First Amendment Handbook is an important weapon in that fight.

In addition to helping reporters at home, The First Amendment Handbook has traveled the world, communicating the principles of a free press to journalists and lawmakers in developing democracies around the world in a succinct, easy-to-understand manner.

The latest edition of The First Amendment Handbook is available both in the familiar pocket-sized booklet, and in an online version available at www.rcfp.org/handbook.

A handbook like this can never be a substitute for advice from a news organization’s attorney. But we know that many journalists simply do not have access to an attorney when they have a pressing legal question. Thus, a primer like this will help educate the reader on the basics of the law and the right to gather and report the news. We believe that this Seventh Edition of The First Amendment Handbook will, like its predecessors, find a useful place in the pockets and desk drawers of members of the working press, as well as on their computer desktops.

As useful as we believe this handbook will be to reporters, we encourage journalists who gather and report news in any medium to call the Reporters Committee for assistance when they need to find an attorney. We can be reached at 800-336-4243 or hotline@rcfp.org.

The Reporters Committee would like to acknowledge the extensive efforts of our legal fellows and interns who have made significant contributions to each edition of this booklet. Our sincere thanks go to each of them.