The Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program created a pool of volunteers, drawn from Davis Wright Tremaine's premiere First Amendment and media law practice, and Microsoft's in-house legal department, to work with reporters and small news organizations that are not otherwise able to afford legal support to help them defend their legal rights and deliver quality journalism to the public. The program receives pro bono client referrals from the Reporters Committee, the First Amendment Coalition, and the Washington Coalition for Open Government, as well as from other sources, and additionally works directly with a select group of digital newsrooms, providing free legal support with pre-publication review, access to public records, and subpoena defense.
While a spectrum of nonprofit groups, including the Reporters Committee and law school legal clinics, have in recent years expanded their free legal services to help financially strapped local news organizations, they have not been able to keep up with demand. Studies have shown that many media organizations can no longer pay for legal work, with news leaders expressing a clear and urgent need for more legal resources.
"This exciting RCFP partnership with Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine is a big step toward meeting the growing demand for free legal services for local journalists," said Stephen J. Adler, chairman of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "As RCFP knows from its own work, journalists everywhere urgently need legal help in gaining access to information, holding government officials accountable, and fighting back against frivolous subpoenas aimed at silencing journalism in the public interest."
Davis Wright Tremaine's renowned media and entertainment practice has worked on groundbreaking cases in trial and appellate courts across the country. Their attorneys have decades of experience working on behalf of journalists to access public records, protect their sources and work materials, and review investigative stories before publication to help reduce legal risk. In 2017, the Reporters Committee honored the firm with its Freedom of the Press award.
"This is innovation and collaboration at its finest," said Joanna Boisen, Chief Pro Bono and Social Impact Officer at Davis Wright Tremaine. "Thanks to my colleague, Thomas R. Burke, and Microsoft's Sima Sarrafan, who came up with the idea, we were able to create something truly game changing for journalists and newsrooms that can't afford legal services—a way to make sure their voices are heard and stories are told. When law firms and in-house legal departments come together to do good, it's impactful and helps make access to legal services a reality for everyone, not just those who can afford it."
"Despite the integral role a free press serves in our democracy, journalists face increasing difficulty with accessing the information and legal resources they require to do their job," said Beth Henderson, Microsoft's Pro Bono Director. "Microsoft is proud to be part of this effort, and we are grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for supporting this work and to Davis Wright Tremaine and the Reporters Committee for sharing their unique expertise to scale the delivery of pro bono legal services to journalists and newsrooms across the United States."
In addition to providing pro bono legal services through the pilot program with Davis Wright Tremaine, Microsoft is working to combat disinformation, expand news distribution, and fund community foundations that support local news organizations. Microsoft has also been exploring ways to use its technology and resources to preserve and protect journalism and support local newsrooms.
Geoffrey King, executive editor of Open Vallejo, is a current client of the Protecting Journalists program. "My hometown of Vallejo, California, is one of the most diverse places in the country," he said. "It is also a news desert, which has enabled municipal mismanagement, as well as one of the most violent police departments in California. I founded Open Vallejo to shine a light on some terrible wrongs. Protecting Journalists has provided pro bono counsel to our tiny newsroom since we launched last summer. Their support has been critical to our work, including stories that have won awards, sparked investigations, and upended a mayoral election. I would be thrilled to see the program made available to more media organizations."
To expand and scale the program, with the support of the generous grant from the Knight Foundation, the Reporters Committee is hiring a Pro Bono Director to work with Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine. The Director will be responsible for analyzing community needs and surveying clinics, legal service organizations, nonprofits, firms, and corporate legal departments to gauge interest in a national pro bono network.
This expanded network of top private-sector attorneys would complement the Reporters Committee's Local Legal Initiative, which is underwritten by Knight. Providing legal support for local journalists is a key part of the Knight Foundation's strategy to promote the sustainability of local journalism. The foundation has also supported legal services through law school clinics and through the creation of the Knight Institute for the First Amendment at Columbia University.
"Pro bono support for journalists has been part of our work for decades because good, aggressive journalism often requires legal back up," said Alberto Ibargüen, president of Knight Foundation. "This new collaboration of a leading technology company with national leaders in media law, philanthropy and nonprofit legal services for local journalists represents a special opportunity to make a difference in newsrooms across the country and the communities that rely on them."
Anyone interested in learning more about the pro bono media law network as it develops can sign up to receive updates.
About Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
Davis Wright Tremaine LLP is a national, AmLaw 100 law firm with approximately 580 lawyers. The firm is widely recognized as having the leading media and First Amendment practice group in the country. The firm has been named Law360 Practice Group of the Year in Media/Entertainment each of the past five years. For more information, visit www.dwt.com.
About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was founded by leading journalists and media lawyers in 1970 when the nation's news media faced an unprecedented wave of government subpoenas forcing reporters to name confidential sources. Today it provides pro bono legal representation, amicus curiae support, and other legal resources to protect First Amendment freedoms and the newsgathering rights of journalists.
About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit kf.org.