Before becoming a lawyer and joining Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic, Heather Murray was a local newspaper journalist in New York. She appreciates the role of local news as a trusted voice in the community, and challenges faced by local reporters in uncovering truth.
That’s why Murray’s recent appointment to a new advisory committee at ProJourn is especially meaningful and brings attention to the work of Cornell Law School students in the Local Journalism Project, where she is managing attorney. ProJourn provides pro bono support to journalists, including small news organizations, nonprofit newsrooms, documentary filmmakers and freelancers—goals that align with the Clinic. “Our Clinic brings a unique perspective to ProJourn because we are one of the few law schools in the country that has significant experience doing pro bono work on behalf of local journalists,” says Murray. “With stronger ties to ProJourn, our students will have expanded opportunities to gain experience with accessing records in different states and supporting local journalists’ efforts to tell stories of great public concern.”
In recent years, students in Cornell’s Local Journalism Project have largely represented news outlets in New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont. Murray expects that her work on the new advisory committee will broaden the students’ geographic experiences. “Each state has its own public records statute and enforcement mechanisms. For example, in Texas, an agency that wants to withhold records must get approval from the state attorney general. In Pennsylvania, there’s an Office of Open Records that decides appeals. New York has neither, which often forces reporters into litigation from the outset.”
Murray is the only representative of a law school appointed to the new committee, joining leaders in the technology, media, and legal fields. She hopes to expand awareness among local journalists of the pro bono resources available to help with both public records access and pre-publication review of articles. “When I was a local journalist at a small newspaper, it never occurred to me that I would be able to reach out for pro bono legal assistance,” says Murray. “Also, many local journalists don’t even realize when legal help would be advantageous.”
In making its announcement of the new advisory committee, ProJourn says it has helped more than 75 news organizations in just three years: “With this committee behind us, we look forward to recruiting and training more lawyers, helping more journalists, and getting more investigative stories out to the public.”