THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

With Harvard's Help, Congress May Keep Bloggers Out of Jail

It's hard out here for a blogger.

And hard for online journalists, unemployed new media producers, and just about anyone else dabbling in journalism without professional backing.

Beyond the basic financial challenges, there is scant legal help for members of the new media, even though they face the same complex, pricey legal threats as traditional media. Plus extra threats -- like government attempts to out anonymous bloggers, which can cost a lot to fight in court.

On Thursday, however, it just got a little easier out here for a blogger. (h/t Jon Stewart.) The
smart folks at Harvard's Citizen Media Law Project are launching a program of free legal services for online and citizen media. And I'm taking the liberty of substituting the word "free" for pro bono in their announcement -- us lawyers have trouble kicking the Latin:

We are [launching the] Online Media Legal Network (OMLN), a new [free] initiative that connects lawyers and law school clinics from across the country with online journalists and digital media creators who need legal help. Lawyers participating in OMLN will provide qualifying online publishers with [free] and reduced fee legal assistance on a broad range of legal issues, including business formation and governance, copyright licensing and fair use, employment and freelancer agreements, access to government information, pre-publication review of content, and representation in litigation.

New media experts immediately applauded the move. NYU professor Jay Rosen said he supports the program because it is "trying to level the playing field for independent online producers."

The program launches just as Congress is on the verge of strengthening reporting protections not only for traditional journalists, but for bloggers as well.

A new draft shield law, supported by President Obama, would scuttle government subpoenas against unpaid bloggers in instances when the forced disclosure of a source was outweighed by the public interest. The law would benefit professional journalists and amateur bloggers. Of course, it helps to have a lawyer around to enforce those rights.

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Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this first appeared. With research by Shakthi Jothianandan.