First Amendment Guerillas: Formative Years of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Article excerpt

Abstract

Fueled by bitter disputes over the issuance of subpoenas to reporters and operating in the contentious climate of the Watergate Era, an innovative effort in 1970 to aggressively defend the interests of working journalists gave rise to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Governed by working reporters in Washington, the Committee confronted former President Richard Nixon when he attempted to remove documents from the public domain. Shifts in the political climate, deep divisions over a media response to Grenada, and a change in leadership style brought a retreat from "guerilla" tactics in the mid-1980s. The Committee remains a reliable defender of journalists' rights and a bridge between the working press and a First Amendment Bar created during this period. Feverish activity, inner tensions, and confrontations with both publishers and public officials mark the early years of the RCFP as a significant time in the history of the American press, and also reflect a time of high drama, high stakes, and zealous actors in American political and media history.

"Basically, the idea was to fight back, and if you couldn't do it nicely, you did it through warfare . . . I'm the guerilla, and if you can't get it one way you can get it another. And that's what we did." Jack C. Landau, executive director 1974-85, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Washington lawyer Robert Herzstein read the front-page news that President Gerald R. Ford had pardoned Richard M. Nixon; a secondary story was a deal cut by Nixon and the General Services Administration, giving the disgraced former president control of his personal papers.

"It struck me as pretty insulting," Herzstein recalled three decades later.1 But it set in motion a chain of events that reclaimed the papers for the public and thrust a little-known group of journalists into the national spotlight as they took on a former President of the United States.

Herzstein's first call was to the Newhouse News Service's Supreme Court reporter, an attorney and the husband of a junior associate in Herzstein's powerful Washington law firm, Arnold and Porter. Jack C. Landau had become the point man for a group of reporters, primarily Washington-based, who had organized in 1970 as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. When the Nixon pardon was issued on September 8, 1974, the Committee was only four years old and had been engaged primarily in efforts to protect reporters from subpoenas issued by law enforcement officers. Three years later, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its final ruling on the papers, rejecting Nixon's appeal and upholding the position of the Reporters Committee, the Committee had established itself as a force in what was emerging as a new field in the practice of law, that of First Amendment law.

From the vantage point of more than 30 years, its role in helping establish this new legal specialty is arguably the Reporters Committee's most lasting legacy to the media. But at the time, with reporters in jail for refusing to surrender notes or films, and courts and public officials closing proceedings or records the laws said were public, it was the trench battles that occupied the new organization. In a nation tearing itself apart, reporters and reporting were vital to a democratic process under extreme pressure. Cautious news executives were uncertain of how to respond, only a handful of lawyers dealt with First Amendment issues on a regular basis, and the media had a genuine enemy in the White House.

The early history of the Reporters Committee is in effect the history of a volatile time in the relations between the news media and government, and the successes and failures of the Committee would prove to be important for succeeding generations of news workers. Early efforts of the Committee reflect the serious distrust between the Nixon Administration and the media, played out at a time of national unrest and an unfolding scandal in the form of Watergate. …