John Nockleby

Professor Who Learned Through Nixon Years Helps Defend the Fourth Estate

Professor John Nockleby

When John Nockleby was in college in Montana, President Nixon fired the special prosecutor investigating a break-in at the Watergate Hotel – what would come to be called the Saturday Night Massacre, a major step in the ensuing scandal. Just two years before, a classified report on U.S. progress in Vietnam, The Pentagon Papers, had shown up in the New York Times and Washington Post, enraging Nixon. As the president launched a war on the press, and politicians denounced newspapers for sedition, Nockleby realized “the journalists were the ones saving democracy.”

For the last dozen years, Nockleby has made it his mission to bring together two of the nation’s most challenging professions: reporters and attorneys. The annual Journalist Law School at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles came from an idea that had been with him for years – that a functioning republic needs both fields, and it helps if they understand each other a little bit.

He mentioned the notion of a summit to the head of a bar organization, who told him she’d gather a few interested parties. Nockleby expected to greet an austere room with a few suits around a table. Instead he found himself – a few weeks later – “walking into an auditorium of 200 lawyers, from basically every state,” who told him, before his presentation was done, that they loved the idea and could help make it happen.

The resulting program, now a prestigious annual four-day seminar that is part of Loyola’s Civil Justice Program, has brought a California state chief justice, legal scholars, Clinton foe Kenneth Starr and Pulitzer-winning journalists to the LLS campus to discuss topics ranging from gun rights to medical ethics to marijuana legalization.

Nockleby sees it as way to help journalists cover the law and to help lawyers – who often complain about press coverage – get a sense of what reporters do.

The sought-after program, now in its 13th year, was developed in key collaboration with Loyola Professors Karl Manheim and Laurie Levenson, as well as Loyola Media Relations team member Brian Costello, from the beginning. The core faculty even published the book, “The Journalist’s Guide to American Law,” a popular reference among reporters.

“It’s all about what society needs,” says the longtime civil rights attorney. “Journalism ensures that we can talk to each other about issues of common interest. I know there are debates about journalistic neutrality right now. But this society is in desperate need of a Fourth Estate; we need journalism that is critical, provocative and leads us to the possibility of a common good.”

Nockleby also is a well-respected professor at Loyola, beloved by his students, who presented him with their 2017 Excellence in Teaching Award.  One of the classes he teaches is on First Amendment law – he studied the subject as a Harvard Law student with Archibald Cox, the prosecutor who Nixon fired. Honest discussion, criticism and debate are essential to him, and feed his teaching. “Training students to think critically is central to my goal as a teacher,” he says.

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