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A scary Halloween

On Halloween, I was having one of those days when I just wanted to plant my forehead on my keyboard.…

On Halloween, I was having one of those days when I just wanted to plant my forehead on my keyboard.

The previous week’s headlines had included a mind-boggling number of examples of public officials behaving in not just a stupid way; but in an outrageously stupid way. Consider these examples:

In Washington, D.C., you can be thrown in jail for taking more than five minutes to take a photograph on public property. A delayed-shutter night shot of the Washington Monument? Forget about it.

In Texas, Attorney General Greg Abbott is defending a lawsuit in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because a collection of local elected officials throughout Texas have challenged the state open meeting law’s enforcement provisions as a violation of their free speech.

In Arkansas, a state court judge found the state’s public record law’s enforcement provision to be unconstitutional.
In Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Nashville and Long Island, reporters and photographers were arrested merely for covering stories while on public property.

And at the Pentagon, Defense Department officials are banning Stars and Stripes reporters from even looking at — not publishing, mind you — publicly available documents posted by WikiLeaks to write their stories about the broadest leak of classified information in history.

This collection of examples of government interference in newsgathering tells us at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press that our jobs will never be finished. In these days of dwindling legal budgets in traditional newsrooms and non-existent legal budgets for all other journalists, it’s important that we teach reporters to be knowledgeable about their rights and confident enough to engage in self-help to defend them.

We think we’ve come up with a good strategy to help those reporters. First, we’re going on the road to teach media law basics at regional workshops hosted by universities and partners from the Investigative News Network, a collection of non-profit, digital investigative journalists from around the country. Our first workshops were in Miami and Boston. Two more are scheduled before the end of the year in New York and Denver. The first four workshops were funded by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the McCormick Foundation has given us a grant to do three more workshops in 2012.

Reporters Committee Freedom of Information Director Mark Caramanica and I taught the first workshops, which had between 30 and 40 attendees. Our “students” included journalists who had left the “for-profit” journalism world and are trying to report important stories while raising money to do it. Other attendees are recent college graduates and bloggers who have never had routine access to lawyers. Journalism students filled in the remaining seats and gave the sessions a certain fresh energy.

While journalism veterans are reasonably well versed in libel and reporter’s privilege issues, intellectual property issues seemed to present the biggest challenge. The student journalists, in particular, have a strong grasp of plagiarism issues — they know they can’t steal someone else’s work for a class assignment.

Caramanica has been teaching the intellectual property component of the workshops. The principle of “fair use” has always been hard to grasp. But I’ve been taken aback a few times when someone in the room has challenged him: “Can’t I take Google images from the Internet? Why not? How much can I take without getting into trouble?”
What is it about the Internet that makes new and veteran journalists alike think it is okay to take stories or photographs from someone’s website and post it on their own?

Our second strategy to reach digital journalists focuses on redeveloping our website, creating mobile “apps” for our digital products and producing webinars for those who cannot attend a workshop in person.

The new website will be launched in December thanks to grants from Knight Foundation, Baumann Foundation and Dow Jones Company. We hope you will find it easier to find the amazing web products we’ve been producing since 1994.

Please let us know what you think. We have been serving the legal and advocacy needs of journalists since 1970. We hope to continue to be of service to all journalists, but we need your help to do it.