I was sitting at a karaoke bar in Tokyo on my birthday, my first breath of relaxation after a tumultuous week covering the March 11 earthquake, when my BlackBerry buzzed with news that would shake me to the core.
Dick Goehler was gone.
Richard “Dick” Goehler taught me more about media law than two degrees and two decades in the trenches. He could throw down in a second on any manner of topics including libel, First Amendment, cameras in the courtroom, open records, prior restraint, defamation and invasion of privacy. He spoke and wrote widely about access and freedom of information, digital and social media, prepublication and post, copyright, trademark and advertising law. He spoke in sports analogies and lived like the sign in his office that read “Play like a champion today.” He also loved Bud Light and anything Notre Dame. Just saying, the man may have been brilliant, but he was also fun at a party.
You may have met Dick at one of our conventions. He was a perennial speaker on media law. Dick was an SPJ member, but he spread around the love when it came to journalism training. I saw him at conferences for Investigative Reporters and Editors, Radio Television Digital News Association and the National Association of Broadcasters, and he served on the board of directors of the Student Press Law Center. He held hundreds of training sessions for young and seasoned journalists and lawyers.
I first met Dick in the basement of the old WCPO-TV building in downtown Cincinnati, in the dungeon where we edited our investigative pieces. As our station’s attorney, he would watch each of my reports before they aired. He never took notes. He didn’t need to. He remembered everything. He’d rattle off any concerns, and we’d always work out solutions on the spot, debating and settling on just the right words or images.
I might never have gotten to know Dick beyond those brief sessions if it weren’t for a professional SLAPP.
Starting in 2004, Dick predicted in play-by-play fashion what would happen as we aired a rolling investigation into one of the largest dental chains in our region. Patients alleged shoddy work and billing improprieties. Employee dentists and hygienists alleged shortcuts including occasional failures to sanitize equipment between patients. The dentist who owned the firm was combative and wealthy. I expected him to come after us. Dick said no, he’d come after our sources.
I’d never heard of a SLAPP suit before. SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It’s a fancy term for intimidation of critics via a lawsuit they can’t
afford to fight. In our case, instead of suing my station over the story, the dentist sued our sources. Dick knew it wasn’t just an attempt to silence and censor them. The dentist was attempting to pressure one or more to buckle under the financial threat, to flip on what they told us and say we took it out of context, that our journalism was bad. Then the dentist could sue us.
In a bold move fueled by brilliant strategy, Dick led us into court to ask that the station be named as defendants in the case against our sources, convincing the judge that’s where we would end ultimately. Then, the Scripps company stood up for our sources. It took four years through trial court, the Ohio First District Court of Appeals and, finally, the Ohio Supreme Court. Dick kicked butt every step of the way. We won on summary judgment and in every appeal. So did the patients and dentists and hygienists who bravely spoke out. Their words would not be censored.
I spent hundreds of hours with Dick and our Frost Brown Todd team in those years. You really get to know someone when you’re sharing meals preparing for months of depositions. We also spoke together on panels at conferences.
Last summer, doctors diagnosed Dick with leukemia. At first, few people knew. Dick kept working through chemotherapy, even when confined to “house arrest,” as he called it. He kept cranking out emails and briefs. He beat back the disease and showed up as always at the Greater Cincinnati chapter awards banquet. We shared a drink, and he promised to come to the convention in Las Vegas. He didn’t make it. Continuing treatment meant no plane trips or exposure to masses of people. And it worked. Dick came back to work in the law office he loved so much. I saw him Feb. 23, 10 days before I left for Japan. He was fit and sharp as always. Friends say his latest scan showed no sign of cancer. It was gone.
Dick Goehler died on my birthday, March 15. He’d suffered a stroke, and doctors treating him found that the leukemia had come back in weeks, with a vengeance. There was nothing they could do. He was 54.
Dick’s received honors beyond measure, most recently when SPJ Regions 4 and 5 created the Dick Goehler First Amendment Defender Award, an annual recognition of those who fight for the public’s right to know. More than anything, I’ll remember Dick for his tireless and passionate work defending the rights of journalists to do our jobs. He protected freedom of the press on a daily basis. For three decades, he ensured the rights of the public as guaranteed under the First Amendment.
He played it like that sign in his office, like a champion every day.