Protecting Access to Information: An Interview with Duffy Carolan

DWT Media Law June 8, 2011 Comments Off on Protecting Access to Information: An Interview with Duffy Carolan
Protecting Access to Information: An Interview with Duffy Carolan

Duffy Carolan, a media lawyer in our San Francisco office, represents news, entertainment, and online content providers. She is newsroom counsel to over 40 newspapers, providing 24/7 advice to reporters and editors on deadline. Her commitment to freedom of the press recently earned Duffy a James Madison Freedom of Information Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter (her second such award from the chapter). Her pro bono work for the Chauncey Bailey Project, which sought to uncover the truth about the murder of a journalist, was recognized by numerous organizations including The American Lawyer.

Q: Duffy, you majored in journalism in college—what made you decide to become a lawyer?

Carolan: My initial interest in law was sparked by a media law class I took in college. I loved reading the cases and seeing how the law developed. But I remember even in high school a teacher of mine telling the whole class that I should go into law since I constantly presented strong arguments for early dismissal. Funny how those things stick with you.

I also knew I needed a career change after working in the newspaper business for a few years selling ads and writing a column, “Dining with Duffy.” In one of my columns I recommended a restaurant’s prawns stuffed with shrimp and crab, but I misspelled it as “crap.” Herb Caen, the legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist, had a field day with that. I figured I’d better go to law school.

Q: What has been your most meaningful pro bono case?

Carolan: I’m very proud of our firm’s involvement in the Chauncey Bailey Project. The work we were able to do got important documents into the hands of the journalists investigating Chauncey’s death and the police investigation. We got unsealed search warrants connected to two homicides that had the district attorney’s office scratching its head as to why the Project was seeking them. The head of the Black Muslim Bakery, Bey IV, was ultimately charged with these murders as well as Chauncey’s. We also got the grand jury transcript unsealed and a gag order lifted.

Beyond that, I am most proud of, and I get the biggest kick out of, working day in and day out with reporters trying to get access to government information or court records and vetting their work before it’s published.

Q: How did you initially become involved in doing pro bono work?

Carolan: With the Chauncey Bailey case, one of the leading organizations that founded the Project, Bay Area News Group, is a DWT client. They asked me to get involved, and I was happy to contribute. When the Project first started meeting soon after Chauncey’s murder, there were a lot of safety concerns so the journalists met in secret, alternating meeting places. I walked into those meetings oblivious to those concerns. But later in the case, when I learned from a lead reporter on the Project that Bey IV allegedly had been sending notes from jail to have certain witnesses in his upcoming murder case killed, it became very real for me.

Q: What advice would you give to new attorneys when it comes to doing pro bono work?

Carolan: Focus on areas that interest you, whether that means getting more courtroom experience or working in a specific area of law. That way your passion for the work will come through and you’ll be able to develop a certain expertise in the area. And you’re more likely to get jazzed about the work you’re doing.

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