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January 2023

Spring Conference Preview

In-Person Events Take Center Stage As Covid Risks Ebb

By George Freeman

Last September, President Biden said the Covid pandemic was over. While this might have been a bit of presidential puffery, we at the MLRC are trying, to the extent reasonable, to return to pre-pandemic activities.

One somewhat sad step we’ve taken is to reduce the number of membership-wide Zoom calls with leading journalists and lawyers we’re conducting. In the first months after the spread of Covid began in March 2020, we hosted more than one a week – and have had over 125 since then (full archive here). They were enthusiastically received by our members, and we received many kudos for helping to hold the media bar together as well as keeping lawyers well-informed and engaged during those early lockdown months. But now, as attorneys return to their offices and to their more normal schedules, we’ve sensed that maybe one every two weeks is a more appropriate frequency.

But the biggest change is to return to a full schedule of in-person conferences. We have been delighted with the turnout at the in-person conferences we have so far held, but, in line with the attendance at conferences in other industries, they generally have been in the range of 60-66% of pre-pandemic registrants. For this year, we fully and happily expect to reach audiences similar in size to those prior to 2020. I sense, and conference planners say, that the biggest hurdle to in-person attendance is no longer the fear of Covid, but more the instinct of people to stay home (whether or not in their proverbial pajamas) for both work and play rather than go out, whether to the movies, the office or our conferences. We hope that the programs we will put on, and the opportunity of reigniting friendships with colleagues unseen for a few years, will overcome the inertia of staying home.

We have made some tweaks in the scheduling and sites of some of our conferences, changes in the main caused by factors other than Covid. As our conference season begins, I thought I’d give you  the reasoning behind some of those adjustments as well as some of the programs we are planning.

The first conference this Spring will be the Entertainment Law Conference held in Los Angeles March 23

The first conference this Spring will be the Entertainment Law Conference held in Los Angeles, this year on Thursday, March 23. That in itself represents a big change: in the past, this conference was held in January. But last year we couldn’t hold it at our partner Southwestern Law School’s site because of its Covid restrictions, and we spent months looking for a suitable venue. This backed us up to early Spring, when failing any reasonable new sites, we moved back to the sleek, multi-tiered Japanese American National Museum where we had held the conference previously. Before that, it had been held at the Los Angeles Times building, but after the sale of the Times and its move from its downtown offices, that no longer was possible; the Museum was a fine substitute and just a few blocks away.  

Outdoor reception at the Entertainment Conference in Los Angeles

But we found that late March was a more convenient time both for our staff and our members. Everyone seemed to appreciate that it was helpful not crowding this meeting so soon after the Christmas break. In addition, after a few January conferences where one had to wear jackets to stave off the unexpected chill, especially unwelcome for out-of-towners expecting ideal LA weather, March seemed more hospitable. Jeff Hermes, who really runs this conference, also said rain was less likely in March, an idea I pooh-poohed since I was brainwashed that it never rains in LA. Jeff clearly has an in to the weather gods, as this January, Los Angeles had record rainfalls.

In addition, we will return to the building of Southwestern Law School,  the former site of a quite glitzy, upscale department store on Wilshire Boulevard. It’s a lovely building and the conference will be held in a quite glamorous room with chandeliers and other such niceties. It also is midway between downtown and Century City, a good solution to avoid the never-ending battle among Angelenos as to whether events should be on the West Side, downtown or in the Valley where the studios are. (I always thought if you lived in LA , you’d made a pact with the Devil to be willing to drive 45 minutes to go anywhere, whether it be the dry cleaners, a favorite restaurant or an MLRC conference, but apparently I was wrong – or with increased traffic, driving times have increased to 75 minutes.)

Getting to the substance, this year’s conference promises to have some quite exceptional programs.  We plan to begin with a session on the Andy Warhol case, and there’s a fair chance that a SCOTUS decision might come down before the conference. Either way, we’ll have an expert panel, composed mainly of lawyers involved in the case, to discuss the decision or the expected decision. That will be followed by a session cleverly entitled “Protecting Creativity with a Bottle of Jack on the Floribama Shore” which will discuss whether prevailing fair use and First Amendment defenses in trademark and ROP cases adequately protect rights in the ever-more creative content industry.

The third program will be about safety on the set, focusing on sex scenes, Covid, and also the developments and lessons from the Alec Baldwin/Rust case. And the final program will be a Documentarian Roundtable, featuring directors and producers of several documentaries which had to overcome legal and political problems. I’m struck by the timing of one: we had lined up the producer of Viva Maestro!, a film about the charismatic and controversial Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, currently the conductor of the LA Philharmonic. Just a few days ago, it was announced he will be leaving LA to become Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. He is predicted to be the next Leonard Bernstein.

Our Latin American Media Law Conference, March 27 in Miami, brings together a diverse audience, from South American media lawyers to Floridians who do deals with Latin American media to in-house Miamians

Just four days later, I will be in Miami for our Latin American Media Law Conference. Here too, the date and site has changed. For years, before I even was at the MLRC, we used to be at the University of Miami on the second Monday on March, during the school’s Spring break. But again, due to Covid concerns, last year we had to find a different venue, and we accepted an offer of our member and friend Adolfo Jimenez to meet at the offices of Holland & Knight in downtown Miami. We had more flexibility as to the date and we thought a downtown office was more convenient to most than UM, which is in Coral Gables, a trafficky distance from both most offices and from Miami Beach. (As my first job after law school was teaching at the UM Law School, just a few hundred yards from where we had met, I was a bit sad at leaving that campus.) In any event the H&K offices had beautiful views of Biscayne Bay and the Ocean, provided us with sumptuous repasts and allowed us a late March date which better fit our schedules, not conflicting as much with Florida school vacations.

2022 Miami Conference panelists, left to right: Rita Chertorivski, TelevisaUnivision; Paula Mena Barreto, CMA Law; Katharine Menendez, Holland & Knight; Alexia Bedat, Klaris Law

So we will meet there next month, on Monday March 27. Again our conference impresario David Heller and I are preparing an engaging program schedule. This program is always a bit difficult to construct, as the conference brings together a diverse audience from South American media lawyers to Floridians who do deals with Latin American media to in-house Miamians. But we think we have something for everybody this Spring:

  • The persecution and prosecution of journalists in Latin America
  • The rise of AI in Latin America, and how it is being used and regulated
  • A luncheon talk by the author of a very well-received new book about the murder of a journalist in Mexico
  • A comparative law session on how docudramas are treated in Latin America and the US
  • An ethics session on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act
  • And – since we’re in Florida after all – Gov. DeSantis and his initiatives which are so hostile to the First Amendment in the area of free speech in the schools and a free press in defamation law

By the way, as I sit here writing this in freezing weather, I can’t help think that we also will probably have a reception for conference-goers on South Beach, where the temperatures doubtless will be in the 70’s.

Finally, in May, as usual, we will have what usually is the most well attended of this trio, our Digital Law Conference in San Francisco. It will be at the usual time, this year on Thursday, May 18. Again, in San Francisco, location is an issue, as there tends to be a tug of war between those who live or work in the City and those who live/work in Silicon Valley. For years we were at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, and then we switched to a venue in the City, in a UCal San Francisco University facility, not far from where the Giants and now the Warriors play. Because of Covid, it shut down over the last few years, and so last year we returned  to Mountain View. But with the reopening of the UCSF site, and our surveys favoring a City locale by a slight margin, this year we will be back in the City.

Freeman and Hermes, along with Michael Norwick, prepare for the Digital Law Conference in San Francisco on May 18th

However, our format will be quite different. Traditionally, and before I came to MLRC, this conference had been on two half-days. It started Thursday after lunch, included a Thursday evening reception, and then concluded with Friday morning sessions that went until lunchtime. I never really understood why this conference should be different from most one-day conference schedules, but was told that San Franciscans liked to spend at least part of days in their office and that it was convenient for out-of-towners because they could just fly in the first morning of the meeting. The problem was that we found that the Friday morning attendance tended to dwindle, and so the two-day format seemed counterproductive. And again, our surveys showed a slight leaning to a one-day format. So this year we are experimenting with an all-day Thursday schedule, which will include a lunch for the group, a meal we never heretofore had as part of the conference.

2019 Legal Frontiers in Digital Media in San Francisco

Staff attorney Michael Norwick, who sweats out every detail of this gathering, and Jeff Hermes, are still in the planning stage, but they propose covering the following topics:

  • The implications of the Gonzalez and Taamneh cases at the Supreme Court
  • Digital privacy and tracking technology
  • Issues arising out of next-generation AI tools
  • Free speech principles for content moderation
  • EU Digital Services  Act update

In short, the last three years were quite a challenge, but especially with our member-wide free Zoom calls, we think we survived the storm pretty well, and gave our members ample vehicles to stay informed and connected. (Its effect on our financial resources was quite another thing.) But for reasons well beyond our parochial MLRC agenda, we’re glad Covid is tending to be behind us. And we’re happy to be planning and providing meetings in the old-fashioned way. I hope y’all will stay healthy and will join us at these intriguing and informative conferences this Spring.

George Freeman is executive director of the Media Law Resource Center. Comments and questions welcome: