Richmond attorney Craig T. Merritt will be the recipient of the 2011 George Mason Award.
The George Mason Award, established in 1964, is given annually by the Society of Professional Journalists, Virginia Pro chapter, to an individual for outstanding contributions to Virginia journalism.
A partner with the Richmond law firm of Christian & Barton, Merritt has selflessly assisted, defended and educated the news media of Virginia. He helped journalists in their pursuit of the freedom of information, and he has assisted in the fight against unwarranted intrusion into newsrooms by law enforcement. He has taught working journalists, as well as visitors from other countries, about the history and status of a free press in the United States and Virginia.
Through the Virginia Press Association, Merritt has given highly informative and useful workshops on freedom of information law in Virginia, not only teaching how FOIA works in the commonwealth, but also reviewing legislative action that has helped or hindered journalists’ ability to review information that the public has a right to access.
He has willingly served a host of news organizations, from large metropolitan dailies to individual student weeklies, advising them how to press forward the public’s right to know, deal with attempts to squelch their newsgathering work, and defend themselves against spurious and, sometimes illegal, actions by government, corporate and individual attacks.
Merritt’s clients have been victorious in a number of significant newspaper lawsuits, seeking to hold governmental bodies accountable and observant of access laws.
His work has often been pro bono for news organizations without the resources and knowledge to respond to authority. For example, when the administration of James Madison University charged two of its own students — the editor and assistant editor of the student newspaper, The Breeze— with trespassing for attempting to interview fellow students in their dormitory rooms about a sex offense committed in the dorm, the SPJ Virginia Pro chapter and Region 2 office sought Merritt’s advice on response.
Similarly, when a Rockingham County prosecutor and a group of police barged into the newsroom of The Breeze, waving a search warrant and threatening to confiscate photo files and computers, Merritt advised SPJ about its initial steps to protest the seizure publicly and challenge it legally.
In addition to his work for Christian & Barton’s media clients, Merritt has a busy commercial litigation practice. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Merritt is one of many lawyers at the firm who have served the news media for many years, and he has noted in particular the lasting influence of the late Alexander “Sandy” Wellford, the First Amendment expert who received the George Mason Award in 2002.
Merritt will receive the award at the chapter’s annual George Mason celebration ceremony, to be held June 22 from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at The 2300 Club in Richmond.
Ticket information will be available shortly.