SPJ Legal Defense Fund aids newsrooms facing legal fees

By Natalie Beckerink, SizingUpTheSouth.com reporter

Challenging government entities can get expensive but funds exist to help newsrooms and journalists with legal obstacles.

Here is one example. A Texas newspaper, the Victoria Advocate, challenged the Calhoun County Port Authority after it hired former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold as a lobbyist in May 2018. The newspaper reported that the port authority did not follow state law. To pursue the legal matter would cost money, and in August 2018, the newspaper asked the Society of Professional Journalists for help.

Hagit Limor

“The SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee approved up to $2,500 to support legal fees for this local family-owned newspaper in its Texas Open Meetings Act lawsuit against the Calhoun Port Authority,” said Hagit Limor, SPJ Legal Defense Fund committee chairman.

“The paper claims the taxing entity failed to notify the public properly of its intent to hire a lobbyist. The paper challenged the hiring but the port wouldn’t repost the hearing or reconsider the hiring.”

Hagit Limor, SPJ Legal Defense Fund; president hlimor media

In 1972, the Society of Professional Journalists created a legal defense fund for not just its members, but for all journalists who are fighting for First Amendment rights. 

SPJ Legal Defense

The SPJ Legal Defense Fund has about $75,000 from donations, interest and an annual auction. Once an application is voted on by the fund’s committee, grants of up to $5,000 are available to help support various fees. 

“We support the First Amendment for everyone,” Limor said. “We feel these days that it seems to be under attack, and our fund hopefully can be one light in the darkness where you can go if you need help.” 

Similar funds exist with other organizations. The Freedom of Information Committee created the Knight Freedom of Information Fund in 2010. This fund is usually granted at a value of $2,000 to $3,000 and helps cover court fees, filing fees, and other related expenses, but unlike the SPJ fund, it does not cover attorney fees. 

David Cuillier

About four years ago, the Freedom of Information Act Committee and SPJ decided to combine funds in order to help cover more expenses for journalists, said David Cuillier, SPJ Legal Defense Committee member and assistant professor at the University of Arizona

“The reason we decided to get together on this is because both of the funds serve different purposes in the litigation process,” Cuillier said. “The SPJ program provides direct funds for attorney fees, whereas our funding program does not provide fees for attorneys unless there is a unanimous decision from the entire board. 99.9 percent of the time, our funds are used for any type of litigation fees related to any kind of expenses that can be incurred.” 

Danielle McLean

The availability for this funding is important to journalists of all media because finding the truth and getting to the truth can cost a lot of money, said Danielle McLean, Freedom of Information Committee Chair and an investigative reporter. 

“Governments a lot of times will charge excessive fees, file litigation, sue, do whatever they need to do to conceal or shield the truth from the public,” McLean said.

“As newsrooms shrink and budgets get smaller, as journalists have to work with less, being able to counter that and get to the truth is extremely difficult and costly. It’s impossible without financial backing and legal support, and that’s what we try to do.”  

Danielle McLean, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee Chair; investigative journalist

Many people and organizations have requested funds from SPJ and the Freedom of Information Committee, Cuillier said. 

“The way we have it set up is when you fill out the application our website or on the SPJ website, both organizations receive a copy,” Cuillier said. “We just had a case where we picked up fees for travel funds and charges that were required in a particular case, and then SPJ picked up the attorney fees.” 

Jessica Priest

With help from the fund, the Victoria Advocate pursued its story and continued its series Port Politics. Farenthold resigned from Congress after an ethics inquiry began about allegations of sexual harassment and that he used $84,000 of taxpayer money to settle a discrimination lawsuit brought by a staffer.

Jessica Priest, a reporter at the Victoria Advocate, on July 2 won a Texas Gavel Award for her coverage in the series. The State Bar of Texas gives the award to honor journalism that deepens public understanding of the legal system.

Natalie Beckerink

Natalie Beckerink is the 2019 SPJ Region 3 summer intern and reporter for SizingUpTheSouth.com. She is a junior at Auburn University studying political science and journalism. Beckerink is on the staff of the Auburn University Plainsman student newspaper. nbeckerink.spj@gmail.com

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