In 2020, Borealis Philanthropy awarded a grant to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to create a new legal fellowship designed to expand the Reporters Committee’s capacity to provide free legal services to journalists of color, newsrooms led by people of color and reporters covering issues pertinent to communities of color across the country.
As the first Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund Legal Fellow, Kamesha Laurry supports these historically underserved journalists and communities by connecting journalists to the Reporters Committee’s legal resources, and training journalists on their legal rights, among other important services.
We recently spoke with Kamesha to learn more about why her fellowship is so important, the impact her work has on Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) journalists and organizations, and how she plans to expand that impact in the coming year.
What attracted you to apply for this fellowship?
I knew from an early age that I always wanted to become a lawyer. I struggled, however, to pick a particular practice area of law. Luckily for me, my career advisor at Northwestern made things clearer for me with a simple question: “Do you like helping people or do you like helping things?” This question was a no-brainer — I loved helping people. As an African American woman, I have personally witnessed my community and other communities of color struggle to obtain adequate resources needed to assist them when faced with legal and non-legal challenges. I knew that I wanted to be in a legal position where I could give back to these communities and equip them with the tools needed to face challenges pertaining to racial, structural and systemic issues going forward. In addition, my hobbies and interests included journalism, videography, and other aspects of media and entertainment work.
As I searched for a legal job, I came across an online-post for the Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund Legal Fellowship. It combined all my passions into a single fellowship. The Borealis fellowship allows me to support news organizations led by and for people of color who face common First Amendment challenges that interfere with meeting the critical information needs of their audiences. These challenges include protecting sources and journalistic work product, arrests and detention of journalists covering protests, and impeded or blocked access to public records and meetings.
In today’s political climate and amid the protests against police brutality, I am excited to be part of a team whose objective is to provide journalists of color with the resources needed to combat racial injustices that plague the media industry.
What excites you about your role as the Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund Legal Fellow?
I feel like a superhero in this position — I am helping level the playing field for small, hyperlocal news organizations that are all too often under-resourced and under-capitalized. In this job, none of my days mirror the others. Unlike litigation-focused or transaction-focused positions that can be quite limited in nature, my work is contingent on the current legal challenges that journalists of color or news outlets may face at the time. So I have the opportunity to dive into various facets of work, which not only expands my knowledge of legal issues facing media organizations, but also allows me to effectively assist those journalists of color.
Could you describe your proudest success stories from your fellowship so far?
Throughout this fellowship, I have had numerous success stories. Each media organization I’ve worked with has faced its own set of challenges, and I have been able to efficiently and effectively offer assistance to best address their needs at the time.
I have successfully partnered with and hosted a wide variety of journalism legal trainings and webinars for numerous organizations, such as the Ida B. Wells Society, the Native American Journalists Association, the Asian American Journalists Association, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, Public Media for All, the Cleveland Observer, the Society of Professional Journalists, the News and Information Community and Exchange, the Kensington Voice and a few others. These trainings and webinars are successful because Reporters Committee presentations individually cater to the needs of the respective organizations and their journalists by equipping them with the appropriate tools to overcome legal challenges relating to press freedom.
This year, I was also able to help provide pre-publication review assistance to a number of independent journalists, such as Yanick Lamb, who recently published an article highlighting a longstanding clash between residents and officials over a cleanup at an Ohio Superfund site. Journalists Herb Boyd and Damaso Reyes also received pre-publication assistance in order to publish their multiple-part series that provided insight on the doctrine of “qualified immunity.”
However, one of my proudest moments occurred at the beginning of 2021, when I assisted North Omaha Information Support Everyone (NOISE). This local news outlet’s reporters were barred from attending the Nebraska governor’s press briefings. I worked with other Reporters Committee attorneys to draft a letter raising concerns about the new media credentialing process adopted by the governor following publicity about his administration’s decision to deny access to NOISE. The Reporters Committee’s letter, joined by 12 news organizations and one journalism professor, led the governor to change his administration’s media credentialing process “with the aim of providing access to all bona fide journalists and news outlets, including NOISE.”
What have you been hearing from journalists of color and newsroom leaders in response to your work?
It’s surprising to learn that many journalists don’t know that they are in need of legal assistance. And, even when they are aware, they often don’t know who to turn to for support. My outreach has already benefited many because it exposes more journalists to the type of free legal services the Reporters Committee provides and puts our many easily-accessible legal resources, such as the Legal Hotline, First Amendment Handbook, FOIA Wiki, etc. right at their fingertips.
We have received a tremendous amount of positive feedback from BIPOC journalists and newsroom organizations. I have enjoyed reading their tweets and testimonials in favor of our work, and have especially appreciated the referrals from the BIPOC journalists and media outlets that we have helped this year. We have also received many requests from organizations for additional training opportunities. This is encouraging because it shows that BIPOC journalists and news organizations are receptive to receiving assistance from RCFP and other organizations who are dedicated to protecting the First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of BIPOC journalists. And as long as they are seeking the Reporters Committee’s help, we’ll be here to support them.
How can you build on the work you’ve done so far and have an even greater impact in the next year of your fellowship?
I think it is essential to build trust and rapport with various organizations and individual journalists so that they are comfortable reaching out to the Reporters Committee. I have already engaged with more than 30 media organizations and journalism schools since starting this position in November 2020, but I want to continue developing relationships through introductions by Borealis staff, other foundation staff, Reporters Committee board and staff members and partner organizations.
Over the coming year, I plan to broaden our outreach with social media campaigns (blog posts, shareable videos, Instagram takeovers, etc.). I also plan to attend numerous conferences, serve as a panelist for workshops, and collaborate with several diversity, equity, and inclusion coalitions to foster relationships with different journalists and news leaders of color.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.
Photo by Kamesha Laurry