The Society of Professional Journalists last week approved a $2,000 grant to help pay for my legal case, bringing SPJ’s total contribution to $3,000.
Thank you, SPJ. You are a solid, stand-up journalism organization. I encourage all journalist to join this organization because it is only in numbers that we protect our First Amendment rights.
One of the drawbacks of being a freelance journalist, besides being able to depend on a steady paycheck, is the lack of having a powerful news organization to back you up during legal confrontations.
Take the Jeff Weinsier case, for example. When he was arrested in late October, his case was automatically handed to the WPLG lawyer, whom no doubt is skilled in handling First Amendment cases.
During the seven years I spent as a staff writer for daily newspapers in the Southwest, there were a few instances where my employer had to beckon the company lawyer on my behalf.
No, it had nothing to do with me getting arrested, but over disputes with public agencies who were refusing to release public records. This happens all to often in the media world. Usually all it takes to resolve the matter is a simple letter from the company lawyer reminding the agency of public record laws.
However, when I got arrested back in February, I knew that I would pretty much have to depend on myself for the legal battle that I vowed to pursue.
Celeste Fraser Delgado, publisher of category305.com, whom I was on assignment for the night I was arrested, quickly put up $1,000 on my behalf. But because Category305 is a start-up news website, it has nowhere near the resources of a major newspaper owned by a media conglomerate.
That is why I am grateful for the Society of Professional Journalists, a 10,000 member organization that has been defending the First Amendment since 1909.
A few days after my arrest, I received a call from Darcie Lunsford, president of the South Florida Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, who is also an editor at the South Florida Business Journal.
Lunsford, who is married to a veteran police officer (a very nice guy, I should add), was outraged after I told her my story. She encouraged me to apply for a grant from the SPJ Legal Defense Fund. She then fired off a protest letter to Miami Police Chief John Timoney and Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
Within days, SPJ approved a $1,000 grant, which along with the $1,000 from Category305, enabled me to retain criminal lawyer Joseph S. Shook, who agreed to reduce what he normally charges for a retainer.
My trial has not started, but Shook has deposed three of the five arresting police officers, including Sergeant Ronald Rahming, and all three have contradicted each other under oath.
Shook quickly used up the initial $2,000 retainer in establishing a strong case against the prosecution. Last month, I received a $3,300 bill from his office for services rendered, which also includes deposition court costs.
So I applied for another $1,000 SPJ grant because that is the maximum allowed on the application form. The Society of Professional Journalists responded by granting me $2,000, bringing their total contribution on my behalf to $3,000.
And to think that I was not even an SPJ member when I received the initial grant.
When I was a newspaper staff writer, I was a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which was great for networking; and Investigative Reporters and Editors, which is a great resource for investigative journalists. But as a freelancer, I found those organizations limiting.
After all, NAHJ’s main mission is to promote Hispanic diversity in newsrooms, which doesn’t do much for Hispanic reporters who choose to leave the newsroom.
And IRE is an excellent organization, but without the support of an established media company on your side, it is very difficult to pursue investigative stories.
However, the Society of Professional Journalists is the one organization that supports all journalists. After all, the First Amendment doesn’t only apply to those reporters working for media companies.
Needless to say, I am now a full-fledged SPJ member.
Thank you, SPJ. And thank you, Darcie.212