“Super Lawyer” Rob Balin

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Date: 
10 Jan 2014

Rob Balin, who regularly provides pro bono assistance to MLDI in free speech cases around the world, is a media law specialist at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in New York, where he co-chairs the firm’s media law and First Amendment practice.

Besides his law practice, in which he represents news organisations and journalists in all aspects of media legislation, Rob teaches media law at Columbia University Law School.  He has also provided media law training to lawyers in Thailand and Malaysia and journalism students in China, and has lectured and written widely on media law issues.  His pro bono work has taken him to many countries, especially in Asia, and he is currently working with MLDI in petitioning UNESCO and the UN Special Rapporteurs for freedom of expression for assistance in pressing the Vietnamese government to release a prominent human rights activist jailed for advocating democratic pluralism in his country.

A winner of awards, with numerous honorary appointments in legal bodies, Rob is regularly listed by Super Lawyers Magazine as a “New York Super Lawyer” in media litigation and he has been named by Chambers USA as one of America’s leading lawyers in First Amendment litigation.

MLDI has been talking to him.

Why did you choose media law for a career?

It was a circuitous path.  I was a psychology major in college, I worked with emotionally disturbed adolescents at an institution in Vermont and I was planning on an illustrious career as a mental health professional. Then in my senior year at college I took a US constitutional law class and was hooked.  I headed off to law school and after graduation had the great good fortune to land a position at a First Amendment law firm that represented Random House, Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and many other media clients.  That was more than 25 years ago, and it’s been a thrilling ride ever since.

If you had not become a lawyer what would you like to have been?

If I had to start all over again I think I would be an evolutionary biologist.  I’m a great fan of Steven Jay Gould, whose colourful essays and books on evolution make for riveting reading, and another of my heroes is George Schaller, perhaps the world’s leading field biologist, whose travels in the remote Dolpo region of Tibet while studying blue sheep is the subject of Peter Mathiessen’s book The Snow Leopard.

With such a busy life, why do you give up time to do pro bono work?

It’s often said that pro bono work is one of the great traditions of the bar.  And that is surely true.  But I handle pro bono free speech cases for a simpler reason: I love doing so.  The legal issues are often important and challenging; the clients are invariably thankful; and the rewards, though often intangible, last a lifetime.  And because I often assist with free expression cases in other countries I’ve been afforded the wonderful opportunity to work – and break bread – with journalists and lawyers from around the world.  While it’s called “pro bono”, I’m all the richer for donating my time.

What is a “Super Lawyer”?

Super Lawyers is a publication that rates lawyers based on reviews from their peers.  I don’t pay much attention to these things, but it does bring joy to my Mom.

What do you regard as the main threats to media freedom in the future, taking into account the state of the world politically, the growth of social media etc? 

As evidenced by the Arab Spring, social media is a powerful tool of self-expression. Perhaps inevitably, social media is re-defining – and often challenging – our concept of what we mean by the “media”.  The explosion of social media has also, unfortunately, brought with it vigorous efforts by some governments to censor on-line speech; be it laws in Southeast Asia imposing enhanced criminal penalties for Internet libel, China’s Great Firewall or the Thai government’s creation of an office that trolls the web 24/7 for statements deemed critical of the King. New technologies paradoxically serve as both a vehicle for greater individual expression and as the focal point for censorship. And it’s in the new technology arena where I believe our important free speech battles will be fought – now and in the future.            

What are your leisure interests?

Travelling, for sure. And whenever I get the chance I head off to the wilderness for two or three days of back-packing. No cell phones. No emails. And no need to scale the tallest mountain; just the repetitive motion of walking paths less travelled is rejuvenating. Plus there are always the unexpected joys of nature: the hungry black bear that decided to drop in on my wife and me at 3 am in the Sierras (scared out of our wits, but pot and pan banging did the trick!); the two large rattlesnakes my son and I met while walking the trail high above Lake George; hawks soaring the thermals at Huckleberry Point in the Catskills.