If you’re a blogger or independent journalist, do you know your legal rights and risks? If not, there are organizations online that can help you.
Today, experts from Harvard University and Boston University explored journalists’ rights in a panel called “Newsgathering and the Law: Hot Topics for Citizen Journalists in Massachusetts.” They provided many practical legal tips for writers who work outside of traditional media.
The panel was part of a conference on citizen journalism, “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media,” which took place at the Cambridge Public Library.
Traditional news organizations in the United States have extensive legal resources that independent bloggers and journalists lack, said Jeffrey Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project (DMLP) at Harvard University. In response to this need for legal advice, the DMLP has developed an online legal guide.
The panelists delved into strategies for requesting public records, attending civil and criminal trials, making video and audio recordings in public places, and handling concerns about defamation.
“Records really drive our investigative reporting,” said Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (NECIR) at Boston University. “It’s one thing to get someone to tell you something. It’s another thing to have a document that proves what they’re saying.”
NECIR sends out public records requests about a wide range of subjects – from sewage discharges to college sexual assaults.
Bergantino calls organizations weekly after sending them requests for information. He also contacts alternate sources and uses leaked documents. “Sometimes it’s a painful process,” he said.
Bergantino recommends that journalists ask for electronic data rather than print data to save time. But often, staff send data in print so they can cross out confidential information. Legally, organizations are required to tell journalists why they are removing the information.
“Sometimes, we get documents where it’s mostly Sharpie on the page,” said Hermes.
Organizations are allowed to charge journalists money for providing data, but must spell out the line items and use reasonable cost estimates if they plan to charge over $10, Bergantino said. However, organizations cannot charge money for answering questions and are under no obligation to provide general information to reporters.
Both civil and criminal trials are usually open to journalists and bloggers, Hermes said. Courts may make exceptions to this rule under special circumstances. A journalist or blogger may stand up and object to the closure of a trial.
In Massachusetts, videotaping police without their consent has led to arrests, said Christopher Bavitz, assistant director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard University. These arrests happened because a Massachusetts law prohibits wiretapping. However, a court decided that public videotaping of police was a legitimate activity in this state.
The legal rights of journalists and bloggers vary from state to state. In some states, Hermes said, bloggers and independent journalists have less protection from defamation lawsuits than newspaper reporters do.
For more information about the legal rights and responsibilities of bloggers and journalists in the United States, visit the websites of the Digital Media Law Project and the Online Media Legal Network.