'First' Defense: Attorney honored for her work backing public's right to know

By Lynn Monson

Legal News


Ask a journalist anywhere in Michigan for the name of an expert on First Amendment issues, and it’s a virtual certainty that they will cite attorney Dawn Hertz.

Since 1981 – also known as the last three decades – Hertz has been taking an average of 10 phone calls a week from newspaper publishers, editors and reporters in every corner of Michigan, from major metro papers to the smallest dailies and weeklies in the north woods.

The issues most often involved difficulties in convincing public bodies – city councils, school boards, township officials, police – to conduct their business in public. Open Meeting Act violations and difficulties in obtaining public documents under Freedom of Information laws were the most common complaints that Hertz monitored for the MPA and newspapers across the state.

“There are very few areas of Michigan’s laws concerning open government and the public’s right to know that have not been impacted by Dawn Hertz,” said MPA Foundation President David Jackson, president of Shoreline Media, Inc., in Ludington.

“Her words in defense of the First Amendment and open government have appeared repeatedly in legislation and in case law. Of equal importance, her arguments have helped defeat or modify attempts to limit public access.”

Jackson notes that her work benefited all of Michigan’s citizens, not just journalists.

That longstanding commitment is now being honored by MPA with a new scholarship named in honor of Hertz, who retired last fall. Announced at the MPA’s annual convention in Grand Rapids in January, the Dawn Hertz Freedom of Information Scholarship will provide stipends to assist journalists employed by MPA members to attend classes, workshops or seminars to improve their understanding of the public’s right to information.

The endowed scholarship was started with $2,000 in seed funds from MPA Foundation board members and friends. The Foundation is matching the next $5,000 in donations through March 31.

Hertz, who is of counsel with Butzel Long and will continue to be involved in special projects for the firm, said she is touched by the creation of the scholarship in her name.

“I believe in a free press and am so impressed at the stories I have vetted over the years,” she said.

“I believe that democracy depends upon an informed electorate. And an informed electorate depends upon the press. So it’s especially wonderful to me that this scholarship was created in my name to further open government, which aids the press and the public in being informed about their government.”

Hertz graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1971, clerked for federal judge Ralph Freeman for two years, then worked at Dickinson Wright for several years in municipal law before starting her own practice. She said the municipal law experience helped her as she later began assisting MPA and the 300 or so daily, weekly and college newspapers around Michigan.  She initially sat in on MPA board meetings and provided seminars, then started a phone hotline for Michigan journalists. After taking thousands of calls over the years, today she says she recognizes people all around Michigan more by their voices more than by their faces.

In addition to the staples of public information problems, Hertz dealt with the issues of libel, privacy, advertising, subpoenas for reporters, and general questions of statutory law that would help reporters gather better information and ask better questions.

A few times a year, Hertz and the MPA would enter amicus briefs in support of newspapers that filed lawsuits. MPA’s significant cases over the years involved challenging a teachers’ union that wanted to seal off teacher personnel files; government bodies that wanted to punish papers for their editorial positions by withholding advertising or legal notices; and a variety of libel cases.

Two of the most significant changes in recent years, according to Hertz, are attitudes about public government and the burgeoning and complex new issues involving the Internet and new media.

In the early years following the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information legislation, public bodies and officials eventually became more compliant with the regulations, Hertz said.

“But as the Michigan Supreme Court weakened the FOIA, government began showing less concern for complying strictly with the act. In addition, term limits have taken a lot of knowledgeable local officials into state government, making for new inexperienced officials at the local level. A whole new education needs to take place,” she said.

The evolution of the Internet and new media raises many questions about intellectual property and copyright – for example, when can you grab easily accessible information on the Internet and include it with your work?  Or, conversely, when can someone else take the work paid for by a newspaper and use it on their site?  Then there are questions about Web site terms of use, blogs, the perils of editing inappropriate comments posted on newspaper Web sites, and the right of publicity.

The new media’s impact on the traditional media, along with changes in the old advertising model, is causing many newspapers to scale back dramatically, and some have died. The new media -- Web sites, bloggers, citizen-journalists  -- are creating an entirely different landscape, often with fewer, lesser-paid employees and less depth and substance of reporting, a change Hertz has already noticed.

“I am very concerned about the ability of the press to continue to perform its essential function,” Hertz said. “Financial pressures make it difficult to justify the expense of a highly qualified staff.  The issues are becoming more and more complicated and the press is trying to do more and more with less and less. I am concerned that despite all these different media, including blogging and having to do videography, the quality of the news is not better.” 

Jackson, the MPA Foundation president, knows Hertz will be difficult to replace. 

“It was a huge comfort in newsrooms throughout Michigan to know that Dawn Hertz was only a phone call away when a legal concern cropped up,” he said. “Even better, Dawn understood our deadlines and would return our calls from courtroom hallways, restaurants, even in her pajamas on a Sunday morning.”

The MPA has named Robin Luce-Herrmann, also of Butzel Long, as its new general counsel.

Even in retirement, Hertz expects to keep working on press issues and legislation. Her special project status with Butzel Long includes continued work on a “Right of Publicity” statute under consideration by the legislature.

Hertz, who will be inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in April, lives in the Dexter area, near Ann Arbor, with her husband, Roger Hertz, a retired perinatologist. They have three children and six grandchildren between them. The couple plans to play golf, kayak and learn to play bridge.

Pledge forms for the MPA scholarship honoring Hertz are available through Janet Nellis Mendler (e-mail: janet@michiganpress.org; phone: 517-552-2811). Individuals whose employers match charitable gifts are encouraged to contact the appropriate office for a gift form; corporations also may contribute, according to the MPA.



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