Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin, longtime owners of the national chain of Village Voice alternative weeklies, will use proceeds from a lawsuit against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to establish a Chair in Borderlands Issues at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
The $2 million gift will support an endowed chair who will lead a new program at the Cronkite School in which students will cover immigration and border issues in the U.S. and Mexico, in both Spanish and English. The Lacey-Larkin Chair will be the only endowed chair in the country focused exclusively on Latino and borderlands coverage.
The chair will direct advanced student journalists in a professional immersion program in which they will report, write and produce cutting-edge stories that will be distributed in English and Spanish to professional media outlets, and will be prominently featured on the Cronkite News website and Arizona PBS newscasts. Additionally, the Lacey-Larkin Chair will comment on and write about border and immigration reporting nationally, promoting public scrutiny and serving as a national voice on coverage of issues affecting the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.
The new chair will be the cornerstone of a Cronkite specialization that will include three full-time professors. The Lacey-Larkin Chair and a second, university-funded professor to be added next year will join Cronkite School professor Rick Rodriguez, former editor of the Sacramento Bee and the first Latino president of the American Society of News Editors, as Southwest Borderlands Professors.
A need for immigration coverage
Lacey and Larkin are drawing on proceeds from a $3.75 million settlement from Maricopa County in a widely publicized case that tested First Amendment rights as well as Arpaio’s policing practices. They said their gift to ASU grew out of their outrage at the way Mexican immigrants, in particular, have been treated by the sheriff’s office.
“Sheriff Joe Arpaio is trampling federal court oversight in his rush to harass the Hispanic community,” Lacey said. “During this past election, virtually every candidate felt compelled to discuss our border as if Mexico was an enemy instead of a neighbor. Elected officials are responding to and fanning the flames of bigotry. We intend to encourage the better nature of students at the Cronkite School.”
Larkin added, “I grew up in Arizona and was taught from an early age that one must give a hand to those of us less fortunate in life. There is not a more deserving group than those Mexican immigrants who brave unimaginable peril in the Sonoran Desert to travel to Arizona for work and economic opportunity. I hope my endowment of this Borderlands Chair at Cronkite shines a bright light on the Mexican immigrants’ heroic struggle for the American Dream in an unfortunately inhospitable Arizona environment.”
Kristin Gilger, associate dean of the Cronkite School, said the Lacey and Larkin endowment adds to the pair’s already established legacies as champions of the oppressed and watchdogs of government.
“It ensures that the work they care about so much and have done so well lives on in perpetuity,” she said. “And it will give students an unmatched opportunity to do the kind of high-level and insightful coverage so needed in this area.”
In defense of free speech
The two news executives and the Phoenix-based New Times, part of the Village Voice Media enterprise, have long been critical of Arpaio and his deputies, charging them with racial profiling, illegal detention of Latinos and immigration sweeps in Latino communities in and around Phoenix. The New Times also published numerous stories alleging financial irregularities and mismanagement in the sheriff’s office, mistreatment and deaths of jail inmates and retaliation against the sheriff’s critics.
In 2004, the New Times published Arpaio’s home address in defiance of a state statute that bars news organizations from publishing home addresses of public officials if the information could pose a threat to their safety. The paper contended Arpaio was using the statute to hide his real estate assets.
Arpaio, claiming that he had received death threats as a result, sought to have Lacey and Larkin prosecuted. The case went nowhere for several years until then-Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas hired a special prosecutor in 2007. The prosecutor, Dennis Wilenchik, issued sweeping subpoenas seeking the identities of anyone who read the paper online, including information about what other sites they had visited before and after reading the New Times.
Lacey and Larkin responded with a front-page article on Oct. 18, 2007, that criticized the investigation and revealed the subpoenas’ demands, calling them a “Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution.” They also noted the prosecutor had attempted to set up an improper private meeting with the judge overseeing the case.
Late that night, sheriff’s deputies arrived at the two executive’s homes, handcuffed them and booked them into separate jails on charges they had illegally disseminated grand jury information. When Lacey was asked by other inmates why he was in jail, he responded with one word: “writing.”
The arrests prompted widespread criticism, and Lacey and Larkin were released the next day. Charges were dropped days later, and Wilenchik, the special prosecutor, was fired.
The arrests led to a prolonged court battle, with Lacey and Larkin suing Arpaio for violation of First Amendment rights and abuse of power. A series of decisions and appeals at the state and federal levels led to a 2012 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling. That ruling said there was no probable cause for the arrests, and the subpoenas were invalid as the hand-picked prosecutor did not consult a grand jury and issued them without regard for due process.
The court condemned public officials’ handling of the case, writing: “It is hard to conceive of a more direct assault on the First Amendment than public officials ordering the immediate arrests of their critics. And, in this case, there was nothing subtle about their efforts to stifle the New Times.”
Promoting civil rights, free press
The appellate court’s decision paved the way for a $3.75 million settlement paid to Lacey and Larkin by Maricopa County in 2013. The two subsequently established the “Frontera Fund” with the proceeds from the settlement to assist the Hispanic community, which has “borne the brunt of the racial animus and civil rights abuses in Arizona,” Lacey said.
A dozen nonprofit groups have received money thus far for programs that advocate for migrants on both sides of the border and promote civil rights, human rights, immigrant rights, freedom of speech and civic participation. Beneficiaries have included Promise Arizona, Colibri Center for Human Rights, Center for Neighborhood Leadership, Puente, Raul H. Castro Institute of Phoenix College and Fundación México.
Christopher Callahan, dean of the Cronkite School, who issued a public statement shortly after Lacey and Larkin’s arrests in 2007 calling the actions against the news executives “a grotesque and unprecedented abuse of prosecutorial powers” and “a frontal assault on the rights of citizens,” said the endowment is a fitting reminder of the need for a free and unfettered press.
Callahan said the school will conduct a national search for the new Lacey-Larkin Chair and will launch the new Borderlands reporting program in the fall of 2015. The chair will be held by a journalist who has experience and expertise covering immigration and Latino issues, who is bilingual in Spanish and English and who can write and edit professionally in both languages.
The Cronkite School has long been a leader in borderlands and immigration coverage. The school offers students a specialization in coverage of Latino communities as part of its Southwest Borderlands Initiative program, led by Rodriguez, who takes his students each year on a trip to another country to report on border and immigration issues. Those projects have three times won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Award for reporting on social justice issues.
This article first appeared in the Arizona State University Newspaper: https://asunews.asu.edu/20141216-cronkite-endowment