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The year of the lawsuit

“Perhaps even more consequential is the rise of cases that could fundamentally change settled libel law.”

Journalism — our freedom to report, the tools we use to unearth hidden information, and efforts to stop the guardians of the truth — will be increasingly defined by the courts.

In the last year the judiciary has made a handful of defining decisions about the relationship between government and media. The courts have decided whether President Trump can remove a reporter’s press pass, if a court can issue a prior restraint on the LA Times, and whether the President’s blocked tweets occurred in a public forum. Another case required the government to release its rules for surveilling journalists. Here at The Center for Investigative Reporting, we have been battling our own lawsuit after Philadelphia city officials denied our application for advertising on the local public transportation system, claiming the ads were political speech.

Next year will be no different. PEN America has filed a lawsuit against the President to stop him from using “the machinery of government to retaliate or threaten reprisals against journalists and media outlets for coverage he dislikes.” The Knight First Amendment Institute has filed another seeking release of records revealing whether U.S. intelligence agencies’ fulfilled their “duty to warn” reporter Jamal Khashoggi of threats to his life. Over the next year there are sure to be more rulings about government power over the press.

Perhaps even more consequential is the rise of cases that could fundamentally change settled libel law. Since the 1964 watershed case Times v. Sullivan, where the Supreme Court strengthened protections for reporters, significant libel lawsuits have been few and far between. But serious libel cases have been brought in the last few years against BuzzFeed, The New York Times, and Mother Jones. At CIR, we have been fighting our own libel suit for almost two and half years. These lawsuits are often designed to intimidate newsrooms, drain their financial coffers, and even deter journalists from further reporting.

But legal action is not just for wealthy and politically powerful interests. News organizations are also using the legal system to assert the public’s right of access. The FOIA Project at Syracuse University reported that the number of lawsuits filed by news organizations during the first year and a half of the Trump Administration rose above 100 for the first time (up from 10-20 a year during the George W. Bush Administration and Obama’s first term).

The number of cases brought by journalists to unseal court documents has also increased. Among its many unsealing cases, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press recently petitioned a federal court to unseal documents involving the government’s pending prosecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and just last month, the ACLU petitioned a judge to unseal court dockets and related rulings in the same case. In the past year, CIR has filed 15 FOIA lawsuits, extricating information from foot-dragging agencies that we could not get access to without court intervention.

We can debate whether there are Obama judges or Trump judges, but one thing is clear: The fate of the Fourth Estate may very well be in the hands of just a few of our nation’s robed citizens.

Christa Scharfenberg is CEO and Vickie Baranetsky is General Counsel at The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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