As reporters across the country covered the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, the free legal hotline for journalists operated by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press saw a huge spike in usage, reflecting journalists’ demand for legal guidance during one of the most tumultuous years in our nation’s history.
June accounted for the most hotline traffic since data collection began in 2013. Each of the next five months also showed sustained growth compared to previous years.
“The thing that struck me was that 2019 was the busiest year that we had on record,” said Reporters Committee Staff Attorney Sarah Matthews. “Then, in 2020, we surpassed that number in September.”
The hotline numbers for 2020 exceeded the previous year’s numbers by more than 35%.
Since the Reporters Committee’s founding 50 years ago, the legal hotline has become a key component of our work providing legal support to journalists nationwide. On the heels of 2020’s significant increase in traffic, we thought it was an appropriate time to provide journalists with some important information about the legal hotline — and to remind them when they should use it, and what to expect when they do.
When to contact the hotline
Journalists can use the Reporters Committee’s legal hotline to ask for assistance with a wide variety of media law and press freedom issues, including routine newsgathering questions (Can I record this conversation? Can I get these public records?) and responding to legal issues (libel lawsuits and threats, subpoenas, etc.). But the hotline is especially useful for journalists in crisis.
That’s often the case when reporters are covering protests, which sometimes become violent and can occasionally lead to mass arrests of protesters and journalists. When journalists contact the hotline before heading to a protest, our attorneys share the Reporters Committee’s tip sheet for covering protests and help them find local criminal defense counsel to be available in case they are arrested.
When journalists are arrested at protests, Reporters Committee attorneys lobby law enforcement to get them released quickly. We help them find criminal defense counsel to get charges dismissed. We also help journalists find civil rights counsel to help them litigate civil rights claims.
In June, for example, Asbury Park Press reporter Gustavo Martínez contacted the hotline after he was arrested by police while reporting on Black Lives Matter protests in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Although Martínez had permission to be out past curfew as a journalist and clearly identified himself as such to multiple officers, police officers tackled him to the ground and then detained him for several hours.
Through the hotline, Reporters Committee attorneys put Martínez in touch with lawyers from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, who assisted him in filing a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Asbury Park and others associated with his arrest.
“It’s a very useful resource,” Martínez said of the hotline. “The first thing [the Reporters Committee hotline staff] will do is listen to you. And the second thing they will do is put you in touch with help.”
Journalists covering protests should also consider calling the hotline if a police officer demands to seize their camera or search their notes — actions that pose an immediate and serious threat to newsgathering and reporting.
An expanded hotline is also available for reporters covering major political events, including elections and party conventions. During the 2020 general election, the Reporters Committee teamed up with attorneys in 12 battleground states to field hotline questions from journalists reporting on the election.
How to contact the hotline
In the event of an emergency outside of normal business hours (Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. ET), journalists can — and should — call the hotline at 1-800-336-4243. An answering service will screen the call before directing it to the appropriate attorney.
Matthews said true emergencies are fairly rare. “These typically occur when a journalist is being arrested or faces an imminent threat of arrest and needs assistance ASAP,” she said.
For all other requests, journalists should fill out an online form that routes their inquiries directly to the appropriate legal fellow.
The online form can be marked urgent if the matter is time-sensitive. But regardless of whether the form is marked urgent, Matthews said legal fellows typically respond to questions as soon as possible that day.
Reporters Committee attorneys advise journalists not to submit confidential information through the hotline. And while the hotline is available to answer questions about the broad spectrum of press freedom issues, our attorneys are not able to handle questions about intellectual property (such as copyright and trademarks), labor and employment, or contract matters.
What to expect when you contact the hotline
After fielding an inquiry, Reporters Committee attorneys discuss the general legal landscape and, if necessary, help journalists seek legal representation.
Matthews said the hotline is not intended as a tool to provide legal advice, but attorneys working on the hotline can speak generally about legal issues and refer journalists to the Reporters Committee’s legal guides, which offer guidance on everything from covering elections and protests to accessing public records and government meetings.
The hotline also does not create an attorney-client relationship, although Reporters Committee attorneys keep hotline matters confidential.
Reporters Committee attorneys sometimes take on hotline cases themselves. But Matthews said attorneys working on the hotline typically put journalists in touch with local attorneys who often provide legal services for free or at a discounted rate, which is exactly what happened in the case of Martínez.
“We need to know who our friends are [as journalists],” Martínez said, “and the hotline is a good resource to find those friends.”
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.