Borealis Philanthropy and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press are partnering to expand pro bono legal support for independent journalists and news organizations that produce news and information for communities of color across the country.
Supported by a generous investment of $100,000 from Borealis Philanthropy’s Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, the Reporters Committee has established a new legal fellowship to better identify, support, and address the legal needs of journalists of color, and newsrooms led by and primarily serving people of color.
“Independent journalists and publishers of color have been ducking rubber bullets and dodging tear gas during the eruption of recent protests,” said Racial Equity in Journalism Fund Program Officer Tracie Powell. “Their news outlets have been burned to the ground and powerful actors have sought to silence them by refusing to include them on media advisory lists and by filing frivolous lawsuits. Access to critical legal support is a game-changer.”
The Atlanta Voice, a Racial Equity in Journalism Fund grantee, faced a lawsuit after it produced a voters guide based on questionnaires local candidates completed. When one candidate failed to return the questionnaire and saw the published guide without his responses, he sued the news organization.
“The lawsuit had a chilling effect,” said Janis Ware, publisher of The Atlanta Voice. “It makes you jaded, and you become apprehensive about putting out information. Borealis is truly to be commended for their leadership in providing much needed legal aid to smaller and legacy publications like The Atlanta Voice. Being able to consult and leverage high-quality, subsidized legal services during these turbulent and uncertain times arms our organizations with the guidance and confidence to cover our communities accurately, protect the hard work of our journalists and hold necessary parties accountable.”
Journalists nationwide, including many journalists of color, have faced a growing and an alarming number of attacks and arrests while reporting on the 2020 protests against systemic racism and police brutality that followed the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in May.
As of Sept. 1, more than three-quarters of the 238 press freedom violations confirmed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker for 2020 — including physical assaults, arrests, and damaged and seized equipment, among others — had occurred during these protests, mostly at the hands of law enforcement officers. This is a significant uptick from the 152 press freedom violations that the Tracker documented in the U.S. for the entire year in 2019.
The Borealis Racial Equity in Journalism Fund Legal Fellowship position was created in direct response to these threats and other legal challenges journalists have faced, including access issues while covering the coronavirus pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color. The fellow will work alongside Reporters Committee attorneys to provide free legal assistance with cases involving unlawful detention, prior restraint, court access, public records, and other First Amendment issues facing journalists and newsrooms led by and for people of color.
All independent journalists and publishers of color, not just Borealis Philanthropy grant partners, will be able to access legal support through the Reporters Committee. The legal fellow will also help respond to journalists’ legal questions and emergencies through the Reporters Committee’s hotline, which is available to reporters seven days a week.
“Journalists, including many journalists of color, have been confronting extraordinary legal obstacles while covering the protests and the pandemic this year,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “We are proud to be working with Borealis Philanthropy to help ensure that newsrooms led by and reporting for people of color, in particular, have the legal resources and backing to overcome these kinds of threats and continue to pursue vital journalism.”
More information on the legal fellowship and how to apply is available on the Reporters Committee’s website.