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Libel Lawyer to the Stars Visits COM 440

November 13, 2012

Newseum Photo: flickr user Jin Aili |

Bruce E. H. Johnson sourced by Ilona Idlis

Bruce E. H. Johnson

I would say I’m not one to gush about the Communication Department, but given all of my ridiculously amazing experiences with its programs and faculty, that’s just not true. And since veteran lawyer Bruce E. H. Johnson visited my Mass Media Law class last week, I’m going to have at it again.

You see, Johnson is kind of a big deal. His fame is not the celebrity-splashed tabloid kind, but that of a seasoned insider. Johnson’s specialty is First Amendment law and he’s been defending high profile media clients for over thirty years. So when the likes of Rupert Murdoch, CBS, Michael Moore or our own Seattle Times run into libel trouble or other broadcasting pitfalls, they contact Johnson.

(After the lecture, I asked him if he ever feels star struck by the celebrities he counsels. He joked that being sued is the great equalizer. Those stuck in the defendant’s chair are much more concerned with the fears of litigation, than the airs of fame.)

Not only does Johnson deliver resounding judicial victories, since the mid-90s he’s done so without having his clients face a jury trial. While that may seem like an inconsequential detail to most, jury trials for libel are lengthy and expensive. In the 1980s, the Washington Post was sued for defamation by the then president of Mobil Oil Corp, and had to defend itself to the tune of $1.3 million. That didn’t even include the money due in damages to the plaintiff, had the Post lost the case. That kind of cash drain can easily bankrupt a smaller newspaper, so investing in jury-dodging lawyers like Johnson early on is crucial.

Prof. Sue Lockett John invited the star litigator to sit in on the COM 440 class so he could share his insights on current trends and legal perils in the ever-evolving world of media. While we peppered him with questions on cyber bullying, hidden microphones and copyright, Johnson responded with practiced ease, armed with a historian’s memory and an arsenal of relevant court cases for every query. It wasn’t hard to see how Johnson earned his reputation.

The best part of the interaction, though, was Johnson’s genuine desire to be there. The lawyer is obviously in demand and the two hours he spent with us could have easily netted him $1,000 in a client meeting. But Johnson’s an academic at heart and cares deeply for the wellbeing of the free press. Talking to aspiring journalists about the liabilities of their on-the-job conduct is part of that. The other, is shaping the legal protections they need to operate at full capacity. Johnson did just that when he wrote Washington’s first shield law. Enacted in 2007, the statute protected journalists from being forced to reveal their confidential sources. But Johnson wasn’t done. Three years later, he submitted an Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law to Olympia. This measure now keeps those pesky bankruptcy-inducing libel suits at bay and makes it easier for journalists to dig into the heart of a story without fear of undue litigation.

Finding out Johnson had orchestrated all of that to safeguard my future (fingers crossed) career made his presence in our classroom even more meaningful. Ultimately, events like Johnson’s visit are the really cool thing about the Communication Department. Yes, the assembled faculty is made up of experts, published authors and famous journalists in their own right. But once in a while, their supremely awesome friends come around to wow us, too.

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