On Oct. 14, 2015, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press celebrated its 45th anniversary year with a reception and fundraiser at the offices of Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C.
The cornerstone of the evening was an in-depth discussion with Reporters Committee Chairman Pierre Thomas posing questions to former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. about “Freedom of the Press Today.”
Video and photos from the event are online here.
A short history of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was created in 1970 at a time when the nation’s news media faced a wave of government subpoenas asking reporters to name confidential sources.
One case particularly galvanized American journalists. New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell was ordered to reveal to a federal grand jury his sources in the Black Panther organization, threatening his independence as a newsgatherer.
Caldwell’s dilemma prompted a meeting at Georgetown University to discuss the need to provide legal assistance to journalists when their First Amendment rights come under fire. Among those present, or involved soon afterwards, were J. Anthony Lukas, Murray Fromson, Fred Graham, Jack Nelson, Ben Bradlee, Eileen Shanahan, Mike Wallace, Robert Maynard and Tom Wicker.
They formed a committee that operated part-time and on a shoestring (its first “office” was a desk in the press room at the U.S. Supreme Court). With support from foundations and news organizations, the founders built a staff and began recruiting attorneys to donate their services.
An early member of the Steering Committee — Jack C. Landau — was a reporter- lawyer who covered the Supreme Court. In his spare time, Landau started the First Amendment Hotline — the first cost-free 24/7 legal guidance service for journalists involved in First Amendment and freedom of information issues — and also located cost-free lawyers to the press aided by Steering Committee member Fred P. Graham, a reporter-lawyer at the Supreme Court.
In those early volunteer days, Landau also started several other legal defense and research projects that remain key parts of the Committee’s activities today. Among these projects were the first magazine for the press devoted to collecting, indexing and reporting news media law developments and the first service center offering free help to the press on federal and all state public records, aided by Philadelphia Inquirer Editor Gene Roberts.
The Committee also launched as an independent but affiliated project, the Student Press Law Center, the first center offering cost-free legal help to high school and college, aided by Steering Committee member Jack Nelson. Landau eventually became the Committee’s full-time executive director.
The Committee was a plaintiff in several early test-case law suits relying on volunteer lawyers from major Washington D.C. firms. They included suits for access to 41 million White House documents and tapes held by former President Nixon; to former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s official telephone transcripts; to FBI arrest records; and also an effort to block telephone companies from giving secret access to media telephone records.
Attorney (and former journalist) Jane E. Kirtley replaced Landau as executive director in 1985. Kirtley was determined to provide top-quality, reliable resources to help journalists know the legal protections and pitfalls as they did their jobs. During her tenure, the Committee began to produce comprehensive guides for reporters, including a 50-state compendium of state open government laws, now known as “The Open Government Guide.” “The First Amendment Handbook” provides basic information about media law for newsrooms and “Agents of Discovery” surveyed the incidence of subpoenas served on America’s newsrooms.
Kirtley also began a popular legal fellowship program for young attorneys breaking into media law. It was during these years that the Committee also became more financially stable, beginning an endowment that now totals more than $2.5 million.
By the time Lucy A. Dalglish took over as executive director in 2000, the Committee was poised to build on its considerable reputation. After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Committee became the nation’s leading authority on efforts to prevent important information from reaching the public. Its “Homefront Confidential” reports and “Behind the Homefront” weblog are authoritative summaries of what happened to the public’s right to know in the post-9/11 world.
Dalglish left the Reporters Committee in July 2012.
In recent years, the Committee has taken the lead in building coalitions with other media-related organizations to protect reporters’ rights to keep sources confidential and to keep an eye on legislative efforts that impact the public’s right to know. It also has aggressively sought opportunities to speak out nationwide through amicus curiae briefs.
In the last four decades the Committee has played a role in virtually every significant press freedom case that has come before the Supreme Court — from Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart to U.S. v. Moussaoui — as well as in hundreds of cases in federal and state courts.
The Committee has also emerged as a major national — and international —resource in free speech issues, disseminating information in a variety of forms, including a quarterly legal review, a weekly newsletter, a 24-hour hotline, and various handbooks on media law issues.
Academicians, state and federal agencies, and Congress regularly call on the Committee and its attorneys for advice and expertise, and it has become the leading advocate for reporters’ interest in cyberspace.
Important as these activities are, the Committee’s primary mission remains serving working journalists — more than 2,000 of them every year who call the hotline, and tens of thousands who access our online resources. And since its founding, no reporter has ever paid for the Committee’s help in defending First Amendment rights. This is the incarnation of the founders’ vision and the Committee’s proudest achievement.
More on the history of the Reporters Committee from:
- Co-founder Murray Fromson on the 35th Anniversary
- Jules Witcover, “A reporters’ committee that works,” Columbia Journalism Review, May/June 1973
- Floyd J. McKay, “First Amendment Guerillas: Formative Years of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,” Journalism Communication Monographs, Autumn 2004 (This article is used with permission of AEJMC and may not be re-used in whole or in part by anyone for any purpose.)