In the mid-1980s, Charles Tobin was a young reporter covering the police and city council at the Fort Myers News-Press in Florida when he saw the light.
Tobin had been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury about a confidential source and wanted nothing to do with it. But it was the paper’s lawyer who managed to quash the subpoena, giving Tobin his first taste of the stakes in a First Amendment battle.
“I watched what he did, and I thought it was really cool,” said Tobin, a partner at Center City’s Ballard Spahr law firm. “It nudged me in the direction of law school.”
Tobin, 55, is now one of the nation’s most prominent media lawyers, counting among his clients the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and others. He joined Ballard Spahr in June after a public tiff with his previous firm, Holland & Knight. Although he declines to discuss the matter now, Tobin was quoted as saying he was leaving because the firm told him it would not take on any clients averse to the Trump administration.
Suing administrations, whether Republican or Democrat, over First Amendment disputes is what Tobin does, so he was soon out the door. For the record, Holland & Knight denied placing any restrictions on clients.
No sooner had Tobin left than he sued the FBI on behalf of CNN, which followed Tobin to Ballard, seeking release of former FBI Director James Comey’s memos detailing his private conversations with President Trump.
Tobin is now co-practice leader with his longtime friend Phoenix-based David Bodney of Ballard’s Media and Entertainment Law group. He’s a sought-after expert for commentary on First Amendment issues and has played a role in many of the most cutting-edge media issues in recent years.
Among his recent representations is an effort by a coalition of media companies including the Post, the Times, NBCUniversal, and others to establish ground rules for the use of drones by media companies, as well as the protection of images that reporters obtain through drone technology.
The effort already has borne fruit: Media companies are operating drones under a set of rules put forward by the Federal Aviation Administration after discussions with Tobin and his clients.
Past representations have been equally high profile.
Tobin represented one of the reporters caught up in a Privacy Act lawsuit by Wen Ho Lee, a former nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, accused by the U.S. government of espionage. The criminal case faltered, Lee pleaded guilty to a minor charge and then sued the government, alleging illegal leaks of private information.
As part of the suit, reporters who had published leaked information were ordered to identify their sources. Tobin argued that his client, CNN reporter Pierre Thomas, had reported accurate information and should not be forced to give up his sources. Several of the media companies involved in the case eventually paid Lee $750,000 to settle the matter, although CNN declined to participate in the settlement.
Tobin paid some dues as he developed his command of media law. At the outset, he got an internship with the general counsel’s office of Gannett Co., the largest newspaper publisher in the United States by circulation, in the summer after his second year of law school. After graduation, he went to work for a north Florida firm with a media practice headed by locally prominent lawyer George Gabel.
A few years later, Gannett came calling with an offer to join its in-house legal department, and after joining, Tobin began a whirlwind of litigation in which he, along with local counsel, defended Gannett papers and their reporters around the country against all manner of legal challenges.
“I spent eight years as Gannett’s traveling salesman for the First Amendment,” he said.
Today, Tobin, a Bruce Springsteen fan, lives in Northern Virginia, where he likes to garden and read and spend time with his family.
These are tough times for media companies, with the increasing balkanization of viewers, readers, and advertisers straining the industry’s finances. But Tobin says he has seen no indication that publishers or broadcasters are backing down on stories that are true, and are spending the money needed to defend themselves in court.
What he has seen is a slight backing off by media companies when government resists requests for information and the only option is to haul it into court, which publishers are less willing to do because it is costly and because, unlike in a libel case, there’s no insurance coverage.
Publishers, though, are still drawing a tough line when it comes to attacks on content.
“Publishers and broadcast news executives still recognize that their lawyers are an important part of their newsrooms and are willing to do what it takes to see that their journalists are legally protected when they are threatened,” Tobin said.