“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …” The First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech and press in the United States. And when those freedoms are in need of defense, Guylyn R. Cummins is there. The Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton attorney shared her background in and passion for journalism in the 2007 issue of San Diego Super Lawyers.
A believer in the public’s right to know, she worked with a San Diego newspaper in a controversial case about access to information regarding police misconduct.
Here’s an excerpt:
As Cummins became a senior lawyer, she started to understand “the lay of the media law land” and eventually she was able to dedicate her practice to the area. She also began to realize the value of her journalism degrees. “I think it’s really important to understand what the Fourth Branch of government does if you’re going to defend it. You have to be a true believer to be a good advocate.”
Being a “true believer” is a quality Cummins shares with longtime client The San Diego Union-Tribune. Her relationship with the newspaper’s publisher, the Copley Press, started more than two decades ago during that first amicus brief on which the Union-Tribune was one of the signatories. After representing the company on countless occasions, Cummins says, “I’ve learned from them that it’s really important for an open government to have media entities like the Union-Tribune who are willing to continually fight for the public’s right to know.”
Recently, the longtime collaborators brought their fight to the California Supreme Court with a case challenging the San Diego County Civil Service Commission’s closing and sealing of police records. Cummins argued that when an officer challenges a dismissal or sanction, the administrative proceedings regarding that challenge demand disclosure. “If you don’t have access to documents, you don’t have accountability,” she asserts. “In California, the police are the most protected of public employees.” Cummins believes public scrutiny of officers is too limited, “in particular, scrutiny of those who’ve engaged in wrongdoing,” she says.
While the California Supreme Court ultimately decided against the Union-Tribune’s challenge, Cummins remains undeterred, although she expects an uphill battle. “Before you take on state statutes and argue that they’re unconstitutional, you take a long hard look at them. You have to decide whether it’s worth the fight, because it’s definitely going to be a fight,” she says.
The legacy of the Copley decision was reversed with the passing of legislation in 2018.