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Law-Media Symposium to Explore Free Speech on the World “Wild” Web

No technology, besides television, has had a greater impact on our society than the Internet. Fifteen years have passed since it reached the mainstream, and we’re still struggling to keep up with the breakneck pace of evolution and innovation.

On Nov. 14-15, top First Amendment scholars and new media journalists will converge on Washington and Lee University to explore these issues at the 2nd annual Law and Media Symposium, “The Wild, Wild Web: Free Speech, Libel and the First Amendment in the Digital Age.”

The two-day symposium, which is free and open to the public, begins at 9 a.m. each day, and will be held in the Millhiser Moot Court Room, Sydney Lewis Hall, W&L School of Law.

The many changes in the Internet have hit the news media hard. While the demand for online news grows, newsroom staffs contract and even the largest papers are scrambling to find viable replacements for fading revenue. At the same time, new technologies built on the speed of the Internet have put unprecedented power in the hands of everyday citizens, who can now take part in an unregulated marketplace of ideas and commerce that extends to millions. Defining and policing free speech in this chaotic space has confounded the courts and legal scholars alike.

Made possible through the generous support of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the symposium will include speakers, panels and a moot court exercise involving students and the audience as judge and jury.

“The Reynolds Foundation has provided us a unique opportunity to explore together the intersection of law, public policy and journalism in the age of new media,” says Brian Richardson, head of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communications. “This is enormously important and very exciting.”

The symposium’s speakers include:

  • Jim Brady, vice president and executive editor of washingtonpost.com; board member of the Online News Association; former vice president and editorial director for AOL.
  • Erwin Chemerinsky, expert in constitutional law and federal civil procedure; law professor at USC, DePaul and Duke; founding dean of the law school of the University of California, Irvine.
  • John Harris, co-founder and editor in chief of The Politico newspaper and politico.com; author of “The Survivor: Bill Clinton in the White House” and co-author of “The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008.”
  • The Hon. Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals; a judicial conservative and well-known free-speech advocate, mentioned as a possible U.S. Supreme Court candidate.
  • Rodney A. Smolla, dean and Steinheimer Professor of Law at W&L’s School of Law; First Amendment expert and frequent commentator on legal disputes involving online media.
  • Mike Allen, chief political writer for politico.com and a W&L graduate, will join the panel on Saturday.

“This promises to be one of the most exciting programs of the year,” said Smolla. “Erwin Chemerinsky and Judge Alex Kozinski are two of the nation’s most provocative and engaging commentators on the Constitution and American culture. Combined with the insights of Jim Brady and John Harris, this will be a blockbuster show on one of the most interesting issues of media law and policy of our times.”

Day one, beginning at 9 a.m., will feature lectures and Q&A sessions by the panelists. In addition, Smolla will lead a moot court exercise where he will present oral arguments on both sides of a dispute before a fictional Supreme Court. The audience and panelists will serve as the Court’s justices.

Day two, beginning at 9 a.m., will feature a panel and free-form discussion on Internet protections of political speech in light of the just-concluded presidential race. The panel will be moderated by Journalism Department head Brian Richardson.

The symposium is being conducted with special funding from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a national philanthropic organization founded in 1954 by the late media entrepreneur for whom it is named. Headquartered in Las Vegas, Nev., it is one of the largest private foundations in the United States. The Foundation has awarded more than $4 million in grants to the University’s Department of Journalism and Mass Communications to establish a faculty chair in business journalism, to fund summer internships for business journalism majors, and to enhance interdisciplinary teaching programs in business, law and journalism.