1970: The Beginnings
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.
New York Times reporter Earl Caldwell was ordered to reveal his sources in the Black Panther organization to a federal grand jury, 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 Reporters 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.
Landau eventually became the Reporters Committee’s full-time executive director.
The Reporters 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.
Read more about our beginnings from Floyd McKay. (This article is used with permission of AEJMC and may not be re-used in whole or in part by anyone for any purpose.)
1985–2012: Serving the growing need
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 Reporters 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.
In 2000, Lucy A. Dalglish took over as executive director. After the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Reporters Committee became the nation’s leading authority on efforts to prevent important information from reaching the public. The “Homefront Confidential” reports are authoritative summaries of what happened to the public’s right to know in the post-9/11 world.
2012 to present: Expanding our pro bono legal services
The Reporters Committee named Bruce Brown its executive director in 2012. Under his leadership, the Reporters Committee has expanded its services and resources. In 2014, Brown brought on Katie Townsend to build a pro bono litigation practice offering direct representation to journalists and news organizations. Our attorneys are now working on cases for public records access, court access, matters involving the impersonation of journalists by law enforcement, and more.
We’ve also grown the practice to include working with documentary filmmakers, and expanded efforts to explore the intersections between technology and the First Amendment. We’ve also been at the forefront of efforts to work with the federal government to solidify reporters’ rights to keep sources confidential. We continue to aggressively seek opportunities to speak out on behalf of journalists and news organizations nationwide through our robust and growing amicus practice.
In the last four decades the Reporters Committee has played a role in virtually every significant press freedom case that has come before the Supreme Court — including Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart, U.S. v. Moussaoui, and Carpenter v. U.S. — as well as in hundreds of cases in federal and state courts that affect press rights.
And since our founding, no reporter has ever paid for our help in defending First Amendment rights. This was the vision of our founders and our proudest achievement.