The Citizen Media Law Project is launching a new program that will provide free legal help to small news sites and bloggers.
The initiative, Online Media Legal Network, aims to assist Web publishers with a broad array of legal issues, ranging from handling complaints about copyright to dealing with threatened defamation lawsuits to filing incorporation papers.
A large roster of lawyers, including First Amendment specialists like Marc Randazza and firms like Baker & McKenzie, Davis Wright Tremaine, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal has already signed on. In addition, nine law school clinics have agreed to participate. The Citizen Media Law Project is jointly affiliated with Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Arizona State University's Center for Citizen Media; the Knight Foundation is funding the new initiative.
The new program is designed for independent journalists who write about matters of public interest. People who engage in original reporting (or "use traditional news sources in new and innovative ways") and adhere to standards of "truth, fairness and transparency," will receive first priority, according to the program's FAQ.
For-profit ventures can qualify, as can individuals, but the program has income and revenue restrictions. Single individuals must earn less than $45,000 to qualify, and for-profit organizations must have annual gross revenues of no more than $100,000. Nonprofits must have annual operating budgets of no more than $250,000.
Whether individual online publishers would qualify requires case-by-case analysis, says David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project. For instance, he says, a blogger who creates a gripe site about the oil industry might qualify for the program, but one who creates a gripe site to complain about a local car dealer probably would not be prioritized. "We're trying not to draw bright lines here," he says.
Some industry insiders have long advocated for this type of legal service. "We have taken down the barriers to participation in other ways, but one of the final barriers is legal resources -- which are difficult for individual providers to afford," says Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and a member of the new legal network's advisory board.
"Once you have blogging software and RSS and aggregators and Google, you have the elements of an open publishing system. But one of the weak points in that system was the ability of rich and powerful people to intimidate stand-alone journalists, bloggers and independent providers, through threats or legal action," Rosen adds. "This is a further attempt to even the playing field."