Legal Defense Fund Offers Valuable Resource

Article excerpt

Freedom is more expensive than you'd think, and the Society needs your help to foot the bill

All right, so I better `fess up from the start: I thought chairing the Society's Legal Defense Fund Committee would be a snap.

Raise some money, spend some money, I told myself. Field the occasional call, and support the downtrodden. Cheerlead any causes supporting journalists' rights to do their jobs.

Nothin' to it I changed my mind three weeks later when I heard the fear and frustration in Mary Mapes voice.

"I always thought these things happened to someone else," she said. "Now its me, and it's scary."

A Texas judge ordered Mapes, a CBS producer, to jail She had refused to hand over transcripts and outtakes of an interview Dan Rather conducted in September with then-murder suspect Shawn Allen Berry. Prosecutors in Jasper, Texas, wanted the unused material to build their case against Berry, who later was convicted of the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. The fund paid for Mapes' $250 bail It wasn't a lot of money, but it was one heck of a message from the Societys more than 10,000 members who supported Mapes and CBS' efforts to keep their work product out of the public domain.

With no shield law in Texas to back them up, network officials eventually released the information. It wasn't the outcome the Society had hoped for, but it served as a strong reminder that the foundational principles supporting our profession are often under attack. We must be prepared to defend ourselves, which is why the Society's Legal Defense Fund is incredibly important and deserves your support.

There is no other resource like it in the country. It is the only fund from which journalists can receive direct cash awards when they find themselves in a legal bind. Recipients are not required to be members of SPJ. Each request is reviewed by a three-person panel, which can award up to $1,000 in short order. The Society's board of directors must approve larger requests. The fund supports an array of causes--from the filing of amicus briefs to attorneys' fees. Of course, not everyone who applies receives money, but members can rest assured that those who do are fighting causes from which many in our business benefit

The Legal Defense Fund committee remains on the lookout for journalists needing legal assistance. When we find them, we don't hesitate to call and offer help, as we did to Mapes and again in November to David Sommers. Sommers is the editor of the State Hornet, the student newspaper at California State University at Sacramento. Like Mapes, he is trying to fend off a court order requiring him to relinquish unpublished notes and photographs to an attorney who's on a fishing expedition.

The committee also depends on local chapters for help. SPJ members in Connecticut introduced us to Andy Thibault in November. (It was a busy month!) After writing a column examining a controversial police investigation, he was slapped with a subpoena demanding that he provide documents, notes and the names of sources gleaned during his reporting. Thibault, a freelance writer, received little financial assistance from the newspaper in which his column appeared, leaving him to shoulder attorney's fees alone. With help from the Legal Defense Fund and several generous journalists who learned of his plight, Thibault has much of his first round of legal bills covered. …