The law on your side

Check out the full NC Local newsletter from October 12 for more from the Workshop, including industry news, job postings and shout-outs to journalists statewide. Sign up to get NC Local in your inbox every Wednesday.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Amanda Martin, general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association; Sarah Ludington, clinical professor of law and director of the First Amendment Clinic at Duke; and Christina Piaia, of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, for their help with this report.

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Journalism in the public interest has become more challenging in the past few years for several reasons. The two main ones: Cash-strapped newsrooms often can’t afford the legal help they need to do meaningful investigative and accountability reporting, and a culture of government secrecy is growing.

Fortunately, there’s help on both fronts. With the expansion this fall of the Protecting Journalists Pro Bono Program (ProJourn), administered by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, there are four main ways for journalists and newsrooms in North Carolina to get pro bono legal assistance: 

◼️ North Carolina Press Association Legal Hotline: Free for NCPA members. Three North Carolina-licensed media attorneys are available to offer information about public records, open meetings laws, and court access; information about subpoenas; information about defamation; and advertising issues. If your question is not related to First Amendment or open government issues, and the NCPA lawyers don’t have the information you need, they will try to connect you with a lawyer who does. NCPA attorneys also are available to answer questions from public officials about compliance with the law. View contact info and learn more about the attorneys and the service.

◼️ The First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law: The clinic offers licensed attorneys and certified law student interns who represent, free of charge, individuals and journalists with free speech claims. Best at helping with pre-publication review, social media blocking, access to public records and meetings, takedown notices, and defamation defense. To ask for help, complete the contact form.

◼️ Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Legal Hotline: Any journalist can contact this hotline to seek help with any legal matter. Best at helping with issues outlined in this RCFP blog post. Available 9 a.m.–5 p.m. on weekdays (start by completing the contact form), or at 800-336-4243 outside those hours in an emergency (such as a reporter’s arrest). RCFP also has a full collection of legal resources you can consult.

◼️ ProJourn: An expanding national pro bono media law network to support local journalists with pre-publication review and public records access.

About ProJourn

ProJourn is a program to provide free, expert legal help to news providers, nonprofits, documentary filmmakers and freelancers who otherwise could not afford it.

The program’s roots: RCFP, in a partnership with Microsoft and Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, and with a grant from the Knight Foundation, did a landscape analysis and found that more than half of journalists surveyed said their legal needs were not being met. The biggest needs were for prepublication review and records access. The committee also did a pilot project in California and Washington, testing a model of connecting journalists with law firms that were willing to help them pro bono. 

With another $3.5 million from the Knight Foundation for administrative support over the next three years, ProJourn is now expanding nationwide.

How to get help: If you want assistance with prepublication review or records access, start by filling out an eligibility form. “We ask a handful of questions about whether it’s a journalist or an organization,” ProJourn Manager Christina Piaia told me. “We’ll ask whether or not they’re doing local reporting. We’ll ask them if they’re community-focused, and if they have a recognized code of ethics. We also want to make sure that the payment of standard legal fees would be difficult for them. We want to make sure that they are based in the U.S. because that’s where we have jurisdiction with attorneys. And that they stand for accurate, independent reporting.” 

If the applicant is found eligible, ProJourn will send an “intake link” that allows ProJourn to contact participating law firms, do a conflict check and “make sure this is a case that they can take on,” Piaia said. “Then we will recruit volunteer pro bono counsel” for the applicant, “and we will make the introduction. And then really the relationship exists between the attorney and the client. We’re there to kind of help facilitate any sort of administrative challenges and make sure that things are running smoothly.”

Approved applicants need not go through the eligibility step again for future help, she said.

How much lead time should ProJourn get? “To determine eligibility, we’d like to have a handful of days,” Piaia said. “Once that’s done and we actually get the intake form, we like to have a minimum of two weeks so we can do the conflict check and we are able to recruit the attorneys.” Length of the story and complexity of the issues might make that time a bit longer, she said. 

More to know

In North Carolina, ProJourn is working with the McGuireWoods law firm. “They’re very keen to not only work on pro bono matters with us, but also they also are very interested in partnering with us on training programs,” working on future initiatives with the NC Local News Workshop and the NC Open Government Coalition to give journalists tips on when they need prepublication review and what to do when they have trouble with records access, Piaia said. 

    ➵ More about ProJourn.

    ➵ For more updates and tips in the fight to keep governments open and accountable, subscribe to the new quarterly newsletter from the NC Open Government Coalition.