Why you should care
Because … free speech.
When a federal civil rights case accusing a Yale professor of sexual misconduct landed on BuzzFeed reporter Katie Baker’s desk, the words that had dominated much of her writing so far resurfaced: “sexual misconduct,” “harassment” and “discrimination.” And so did the person she has leaned on when writing about thorny issues. Nabiha Syed, the general assistant counsel and fashion-forward legal eagle for the news organization jumped to attention, helping Baker navigate choppy, litigious waters.
Syed’s job is to help journalists “hold powerful people accountable and expose injustice without unintentionally hurting” journalists, the news company and sources in the process, Baker told OZY. An energetic First Amendment geek, Syed tackles defamation issues, government transparency, newsgathering technology and privacy. And before BuzzFeed, she was part of the external legal team that advised The Guardian in ongoing national security reporting and The New York Times, where, as a First Amendment Fellow, she helped bring a lawsuit against the Department of Justice on a targeted drone strike program. “The idea that there could be a legal explanation that remained cloaked in secrecy, that was reprehensible,” said the 31-year-old of the case, which later advanced to the Second Circuit. “If you were actually going to drone strike people, the public should know,” Syed added from BuzzFeed’s New York office.
A first generation Pakistani-American, Syed stands out among a generation of media litigators with the increasingly difficult job of defending news organizations against accusations of libel, defamation or breach of privacy — this in the age where billionaire Peter Thiel can back celebrity Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker veiled in privacy. (Hogan successfully sued Gawker for posting portions of a sex tape in which he appeared; though some courts ruled that publishing the tape was not in the public interest, the Florida federal court and a state appeals court ruled it was newsworthy. The company, forced to file for bankruptcy, has now been acquired by Univision Communications.)
“In a post-Gawker era, there is a lot of pressure,” Syed says. “The case almost certainly has a chilling effect,” Heather Dietrick, the president and general counsel at Gawker, told OZY. “The issue is much larger than the publication of a few seconds of a grainy sex tape. It’s about shutting down unfavorable coverage on a public figure who has spoken widely and in detail on the topic himself,” she said.
Syed has legal tenacity in her blood: Her grandmother, Majida Rizvi, was the first woman to be appointed to the high court in Pakistan, a “badass” and a role model. But Syed didn’t always want to live the Suits life. She caught the law and order bug only when Lucy Dalglish, then head of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, made a speech about sealed courtroom dockets at Yale — that’s the process used by courts to keep some proceedings and records confidential. Troubled by the secrecy, Syed, just 23 at the time, joined up with three other law students to found the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic in 2009, offering legal support to journalists for their investigative work. “It takes people like Nabiha to see gaps in policy and gaps in legislation,” said Rachel Strom, a partner at Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz (LSKS), where Syed spent two years as an associate. “She’s the one who can see the future; I’m the one who can stay on the daily grind,” Strom said.
As a law student, Syed noticed what was then just a scrappy journalistic enterprise: WikiLeaks. After graduating from Yale, while sojourning as a Marshall scholar at the University of Oxford, she immersed herself in questions of public information and the First Amendment. “WikiLeaks was a jarring reminder that an interlocutor was no longer necessary,” she said, because direct source material can now be published, unfiltered and without context, with no need for a news organization or even an editor or writer to “guide” through the information.
In June, Syed authored a manifesto on applying the First Amendment to social media where she, with BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, advocated for “workable transparency.” The not-so-pithy 752-word piece, called “A First Amendment for Social Platforms,” argues that platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat should better protect users from online harassers, while also identifying what constitutes a true threat. “Whatever subject she takes on she’s going to move the ball,” says Sandra Baron, former longtime executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.
But it isn’t always clear that Syed will land herself on the right side of justice. In a fast-paced media environment, journalists can make mistakes. Could readers’ appetite for sensationalism encourage public prosecution of major figures in a court of internet opinion? Perhaps. In any case, Syed has no room for missteps: Charles Glasser, who worked as Bloomberg News’ global media counsel for over 10 years before going independent, says “every time the press steps out of line, the public trust is diminished that little bit more.” The biggest question, he says, is “what’s at stake?” In some cases, like in the example of The Daily Beast last month, a lot. The website was forced to remove an article that revealed the names of Olympians who used the gay social networking app Grindr. The Daily Beast did not respond to requests for comment, but published a note from the editors saying it was “an unprecedented but necessary step.” (Incidentally, Thiel’s personal beef with Gawker reportedly stemmed in part from a piece outing him as gay.) Thiel declined to comment through a representative, who directed OZY to a New York Timesop-ed Thiel authored.
These are the issues that keep Syed up at night, even when it’s her birthday party, and her burning question to friends is about how to limit online harassment without stymieing free speech. “It’s all right to co-opt my own party,” she says.