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J-School adds legal protection against libel

As the number of student journalists continues to grow due to an increasing number of media platforms, UNC journalism faculty are beginning to recognize the need for legal protection.

This year, for the first time, the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication has purchased multimedia liability insurance for its students. The insurance covers lawsuits related to libel, copyright infringement and invasion of privacy.

Media law professor Cathy Packer, who helped develop the policy, said she is unaware of any other schools offering this kind of coverage.

“It used to be that occasionally students would be published, but students are blogging, tweeting and everybody is a publisher,” Packer said.

Packer, who is also co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, has been involved in a national project on identifying legal needs of journalism schools as news producers.

“We had never had insurance to cover our students,” she said. “In this group that I was in, this was a big topic of conversation.”

The one-year policy, which took effect in September, was purchased for $1,353 and covers $1 million worth of insurance. Packer said students will not bear the cost.

Robin Bennington, a risk management analyst for UNC’s financial division, said in an email the policy covers the curricular activities of students engaged in journalism school coursework.

For example, the policy covers work published in classes, as well as ongoing projects housed within the school, including the Reese News Lab and Carolina Week.

The policy does not cover the personal publications of journalism students or other campus publications not affiliated with the school.

David Ardia, assistant professor of law and co-director of the Center for Media Law and Policy, worked closely with Packer and was part of the national working group.

“We’re being watched as a pilot project,” Ardia said.

Packer said she did not know of any student who had ever been sued for libel or other related charges.

Ardia said the insurance is a proactive measure rather than a reaction to past issues.

“It’s recognizing here that students are already producing a great deal of content and there is going to be more of that going forward,” he said.

Ardia said it is important for students to learn about insurance and their legal rights as part of their education for multiple reasons.

He said more and more students are working for smaller organizations or doing freelance work.

“It’s becoming more important for everyone who practices journalism to be familiar with the laws,” he said. “They just can’t look to their employer anymore as the sources for that kind of legal training and assistance. They have to look to themselves.”

Reese News Lab, an experimental news and research lab based out of the journalism school, is one of the projects protected by the coverage.

John Clark, the director of Reese, said it is important for students to know about this kind of insurance when the field of journalism is changing so quickly.

“I think it has a very practical purpose,” he said. “I also think it’s a good teaching opportunity.”

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Packer said she is proud of the journalism school for taking this proactive step.

“It’s very professional, and that’s the way we should be.”