There’s no disguising the fact that print journalism in America is experiencing a major crisis. Since 2006, newspaper employment has fallen by around 70 percent, and the total number of editorial staffers in local newsrooms across the U.S. has dropped by 58 percent to just 31,000. The biggest victim of this precipitous decline? Investigative reporting, which requires greater financial resources and institutional support than any other form of journalism.
In Southern California, although the Los Angeles Times and Orange County Register continue to publish impactful investigative projects, the disappearance of alternative weekly papers such as OC Weekly and LA Weekly (the latter of which still exists but produces only cultural coverage) has left a major gap in the kind of hard-hitting investigative work that previously held our public institutions accountable.
All of which explains why, in today’s volatile media climate, UCI’s Press Freedom Project is playing a critical role in keeping independent investigative reporting alive in California. The project began as a collaboration between Jack Lerner, a UCI clinical professor of law who specializes in intellectual property and copyright law, and Susan Seager, a UCI adjunct professor of law with a long background as a media defense lawyer and First Amendment advocate with powerhouse national law firm Davis Wright Tremaine.
In 2018, the Press Freedom Project won a $225,000 startup grant from the Legal Clinic Fund for Local News, which is housed at The Miami Foundation to support law school clinics across the country that provide free legal services to independent and local journalists. This September, thanks to its string of legal victories, the UCI project was awarded another similarly sized grant from the fund that will allow it to continue its work.
The Press Freedom Project took shape when Lerner met Seager at a legal conference in 2016, and they discussed the concept of working together to advance investigative reporting. Lerner lobbied Seager to consider taking a major pay cut by leaving private practice and joining UCI as a lecturer to help teach future media lawyers. In 2018, she took the job. Says Lerner, “We immediately began taking on cases where journalists were being threatened with lawsuits or otherwise stymied by the public agencies they were investigating.”
The first Press Freedom Project court case, he recalls, involved T.J. Esposito, a Latino independent journalist in Bakersfield who had uncovered corruption there and had been subjected to a draconian gag order issued against him by the Kern County District Attorney’s Office. “We went to Bakersfield to get his gag order lifted,” Lerner says. “We were successful and began to take on other interesting projects, and in 2019 we were able to obtain funding for Susan to join the clinic full time.”
Since then, Seager has been supervising students and expanding the project to include a broader variety of cases, particularly those pitting journalists against law enforcement agencies. One major victory involved the filing of several motions to unseal hundreds of pages of juvenile court records on behalf of independent journalist Garrett Therolf at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program, who used the materials for his co-produced 2020 Netflix TV documentary series, “The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez,” exposing the failure of the Los Angeles County child welfare system to protect children from fatal abuse.
In 2021, a group of UCI law students led by Seager accepted a case on behalf of the nonprofit Human Rights Defense Center, publisher of Prison Legal News, which had filed a Freedom of Information Act request that was being routinely denied. The Press Freedom Project sued Los Angeles County, forcing it to hand over a decade’s worth of records summarizing payments to victims of police brutality by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and misconduct by the District Attorney’s Office.
This September, the Press Freedom Project won a $90,000 settlement on behalf of Long Beach-based independent photojournalist Pablo Unzueta, who had been arrested by L.A. County Sheriff’s Department deputies six blocks away from a Sept. 8, 2020, protest against brutality by the department. “The deputies falsely arrested him for supposedly failing to disperse even though he was nowhere near where the order was given,” Seager says. “They took his camera and cellphone, searched them, strip-searched and jailed him, and returned the camera weeks later with all the photos gone.”
Recently, the project won disclosure of police body cam footage and other records from the city of Santa Ana, which L.A.-based freelance journalist Ben Camacho used to write a Knock LA article revealing that some Santa Ana police officers had formed a gang with shared skull tattoos. Clinic students are fighting in court to get other police records from the L.A. Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department after those agencies refused to turn them over to project clients Knock LA and First Amendment Coalition.
Seager is perhaps most excited about the impact the Press Freedom Project has had on the young UCI students who have been part of it. “This current generation isn’t so sure the press deserves protection,” she says. “They are cynical about the mainstream media for good reason. But I think I’m teaching them about the importance of an independent press and that the press needs good lawyers to fight for the public.”
If you want to learn more about supporting this or other activities at UCI, please visit the Brilliant Future website at https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu. Publicly launched on Oct. 4, 2019, the Brilliant Future campaign aims to raise awareness and support for UCI. By engaging 75,000 alumni and garnering $2 billion in philanthropic investment, UCI seeks to reach new heights of excellence in student success, health and wellness, research and more. The School of Law plays a vital role in the success of the campaign. Learn more by visiting https://brilliantfuture.uci.edu/school-of-law.