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Attorneys and First Amendment champions Amal Clooney and Theodore Boutrous Jr. were honored on Tuesday by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and participated in a virtual discussion on modern threats to journalists and recent challenges to press protections.
“It was shocking,” said Boutrous of recent dissents written by U.S. Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch which called into question whether the actual malice standard created in the landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case is still appropriate in the modern media era. As case law currently stands, public figures must show a news outlet either knowingly published false information or acted with reckless disregard for the truth before proceeding with a libel claim.
Boutrous continued, “New York Times v. Sullivan really is the bedrock of First Amendment jurisprudence in the United States, and to have a Supreme Court justice even breathe the words that it should be reconsidered is scary.”
Added Clooney, “The world is watching, and many systems are inspired by U.S. law in this area. The ripple effect will be felt far and wide if there’s any substantial lowering of the protections in the United States.”
The conversation was part of a virtual celebration for the 2021 Freedom of the Press Awards and the Reporters Committee’s 50th anniversary. The talk was moderated by the committee’s chairman, former editor-in-chief of Reuters, Stephen J. Adler.
Later in the conversation, Adler asked whether former President Donald Trump did any long-term damage to press freedoms through his repeated attacks on the media. Clooney noted that journalists are being imprisoned and killed across the globe at higher rates than ever. “His rhetoric in relation to the media at home definitely emboldened autocrats abroad,” she said.
Boutrous agreed, saying that Trump calling the press the enemy of the people has had “a delegitimizing effect on journalism. It’s caused the public to not trust journalists and journalism, and that hurts democracy.”
Still, both are hopeful that damage can be reversed.
“I think this administration is taking a very different approach to these issues,” said Clooney. “I think America can change the world and if there’s a concerted effort to work with allies like the EU and other democracies I think we can see a reversal of some of the trends and abuses that we’ve been taking about and are still worried about.” She added that it’s time to turn “lofty speeches” about protecting democracy, human rights and freedom of the press into meaningful action.
In a separate acceptance speech, Clooney — who was one of several individuals recognized during the event for her work through the Clooney Foundation for Justice — thanked the Reporters Committee for the honor and for its work providing legal services to journalists across the country.
“I represent journalists facing oppressive regimes around the world, and it occurred to me that some of them may watch this and think, ‘Why would a journalist in the United States need a big organization to protect them, or an army of pro-bono lawyers to defend them?’ But the truth is, they do,” Clooney said. “The U.S. serves as a beacon for all those around the world who believe in human rights and democracy. I thank all of those who work vigilantly to protect those core values.”
Kristen Welker, co-anchor of Weekend Today and NBC News chief White House correspondent, hosted the event, which also honored Boutrous, J. Scott Applewhite (The Associated Press), Julie K. Brown (The Miami Herald), Jane Mayer (The New Yorker) and Laura Moscoso (Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism).
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