Attacks on Judicial Seminars Show Lack of Balanced Reporting

Published August 1, 2005

Each spring, the mainstream media, fueled by a single advocacy group, accuse the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE, where the authors of this article work) of promoting corporate interests, pursuing anti-environmental policies, and conducting boondoggle seminars for federal judges and law professors.

Solid evidence refutes these claims. It would be less disturbing if these printed accounts appeared on opinion pages, but these biases underlie Associated Press articles parading as well-researched and balanced pieces.

Seminars Mischaracterized

On May 6, a Washington Post article asserted, “FREE has received sponsorship from petroleum corporations such as Exxon and Texaco … and Koch Industries, as well as Georgia Pacific. … All have fought environmental fines and rules in federal court.”

Although these details are true, the implications are not. Deliberate omissions lead readers to conclude FREE is an anti-environment corporate pawn. The opposite is true.

For more than 20 years, FREE’s work has advanced environmental quality. We are environmentalists who use the analytical leverage of economics to pursue environmental goals.

This approach is now common among successful environmental groups. Environmental regulation is an important tool for advancing social well-being, but regulation is often misapplied and brings perverse results. Effective regulation requires mandating specific outcomes, but not dictating the technical means of achieving these goals.

Corporate Influence Nonexistent

Only 22 percent of FREE’s funding comes from corporations, and no company contributes even 6 percent of the organization’s annual budget. None of this support funds the judicial seminars.

FREE’s chairman, John Baden, says no corporate representative has ever suggested FREE should alter the content of its seminars to advance corporate interests. Judges and professors of environmental law, not corporate agents, guide the program’s content.

The establishment media frequently use the term “corporate-financed,” intended as an insult, to describe FREE. The Urban League, NAACP, Sierra Club, Earth Justice, and World Wildlife Fund have received hundreds of thousands of dollars–in some cases, millions–from corporations, but media outlets do not label them as corporate-financed.

The term is falsely used to discredit FREE’s work as environmentalists.

Boondoggle Charges Absurd

As for the boondoggle allegations, our seminars are rigorous and demanding. They start promptly at 8:30 a.m. and run through dinner. In four days of discussion and two days of travel, there are only two afternoon breaks.

Participants complete roughly 200 pages of reading before attending. We expect all presenters and participants to attend every session; punctuality is required. There are a dozen 90-minute sessions, with half-hour breaks.

Unlike other judicial seminars, our lecturers don’t parachute in and catapult out. Our agenda fosters constructive learning and ongoing dialogue among lecturers and participants.

Court Has Vindicated Program

Last year, a nonprofit organization filed a complaint against four of our board members, alleging their affiliation with FREE amounted to “judicial misconduct.”

One of them, Danny Boggs, chief judge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, let the case go to court rather than resign from the board. (See the accompanying article on this page.)

Judge James Loken, chief judge of the Eighth Circuit, conducted an extensive investigation into the propriety of Boggs’ affiliation with FREE. In May, Loken dismissed the claim of judicial misconduct on all counts.

Loken concluded that in making the allegations against Boggs, “it is the complainant who is undermining public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, not the judges complained of.”

FREE is certainly not the only victim of media bias. It is this bias, and not FREE’s experience with it, that merits attention. If FREE is under attack, any organization out of alignment with the politics of the establishment media is at risk.

Jennifer Mygatt and David Sands ([email protected]) are research assistants at the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE) in Bozeman, Montana.