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Fred Graham: 2012 First Amendment Awards Dinner Remarks

Thanks to the Reporters Committee for honoring me for pursuing an interest which goes back more than a half-century.

It began 1957, when I was a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean newspaper. My roommate was David Halberstam, and he and I collaborated on a front-page exposé reporting that a plush gambling casino was being operated openly in the heart of downtown Nashville. The district attorney, apparently shocked to read that a gambling den was flourishing four blocks from his office, subpoenaed us to testify before the grand jury.

David and I had no money for a lawyer, and the newspaper’s attorney did no more than advise us to tell the truth. That may have been beneficial for the reputation of the newspaper, but it posed a problem for David and me. It would require us to disclose that one of the high-stakes craps shooters was a highly respected Nashville attorney, whose reputation would suffer if he was identified as a craps shooter in an illegal game. Halberstam and I felt that this would make us look like tools of the district attorney, but we had no lawyer to help us develop a strategy to avoid this.

Fortunately for us, the district attorney had second thoughts about making an issue over this, so he and David and I moved on to other things.

I was reminded of all this in 1970, when New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell was subpoenaed by Richard Nixon’s Justice Department to testify about the Black Panthers. Caldwell said The New York Times’ lawyers were advising him to cooperate to an extent that could destroy his credibility with the Panthers. I joined a group of reporters who believed that in such situations reporters should have their own lawyers. The group called itself the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

The first lesson we learned was that a group of reporters could never afford to pay the high costs of legal services. Then a remarkable thing happened — attorneys across the country donated their services and we were able to compete in the legal arena entirely on pro bono representation. The result is that reporters have had their side effectively represented as the law was being formed. It could never have happened without the generosity of the lawyers who donated their time, and we thank them for it.

Over the years, we discovered that most of the issues of special interest to reporters were not the kind of clashes with government that involved Earl Caldwell, but rather more mundane matters such as freedom of information, libel, closed meetings and court secrecy. It seems likely that as events move forward, new issues will be added to the list. But I hope the Reporters Committee will make it a special priority to try to prevail on two matters of unfinished business: enactment of a federal shield law and cameras in the Supreme Court.

I look forward to being around to take part in all of this.