Moot Court examines reporter’s privilege

Thursday, February 23, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The 16th annual National First Amendment Moot Court competition, sponsored by the First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, will be conducted Feb. 23-24, 2006.

Recognized as one of the nation’s finest constitutional law competitions, it attracts many of the nation’s top law schools. The competition this year focuses on a hypothetical case involving a college newspaper journalist and a confidential source.

“Complex legal issues involving journalists and confidential sources are being raised in a number of cases nationwide. Law students in this competition will explore the implications of the 1972 Supreme Court decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, and how since that time the various federal circuits have differed in applying that ruling, which said reporters had no protection from being compelled to name sources to a federal grand jury,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center.

In this year’s hypothetical problem, a college newspaper journalist is appealing a contempt-of-court holding, issued when she would not tell a state grand jury the name of the confidential source she relied on in a series of stories about the environmental practices of local business and government operations.

Competing this year in the two-day competition are 40 teams of students from law schools across the United States. More than 200 attorneys, professors, federal and state judges, and legal scholars will judge the preliminary rounds and final rounds.

A total of $5,000 in prizes is awarded to winning, runner-up and semi-finalist teams, and to individuals for “best brief” and “best oralist.”

Competition is conducted in rounds held both at the Vanderbilt University Law School and at the John Seigenthaler Center on the Vanderbilt campus, home to the Nashville offices of the First Amendment Center.

The student who receives the highest “oral argument” score in preliminary rounds will receive an engraved gavel in honor of Richard S. Arnold, formerly a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arnold, who died in 2004, was a staunch advocate for better press-bar relations so that the public would be better informed about the activities of the federal court system.

Semi-final and final-round judges in the 2006 competition will include, from the federal judiciary, Bernice B. Donald, district judge, Western District of Tennessee; Martha Craig Daughtrey, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Robert L. Echols, chief judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Sidney A. Fitzwater, district judge, Northern District of Texas; Julia Smith Gibbons, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; William J. Haynes, district judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Gilbert S. Merritt, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and Deanell R. Tacha, chief judge, 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Joining them from the state judiciary will be Cornelia A. Clark, Tennessee Supreme Court.

A two-person team from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, won last year’s competition. The demanding competition requires students to write an appellate brief and to answer challenging legal questions from the judges. The event requires a thorough understanding of First Amendment law, poise under pressure and expertise in fielding complex legal questions.

The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.

The First Amendment Center is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum. The center has offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Arlington, Va. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

# # #

Press contacts: Jenny Atkinson or Gene Policinski, 615/727-1600