Ten Questions to a Media Lawyer: Jens van den Brink
Jens van den Brink is a partner and head of the media group at Kennedy Van der Laan in Amsterdam.
1. How did you get interested in media law? What was your first job in the business?
I spent some time studying in New York and someone who had been there before told me to take a class in First Amendment law. So I did. It was taught by Vincent Blasi. I was in awe. And fascinated. I remember writing a paper on the pledge of allegiance and Barnette. This pledge is a mystifying, nationalistic oddity to me and many Europeans. You guys take flags seriously. Wow. And the whole first amendment class taught me much about the US and how Americans view society. Though – and the past years have clearly stressed that – there is obviously no archetypical American.
My first job in the business was actually as an editor, for the Law School magazine of the UvA, the University of Amsterdam. It was great. We ferociously attacked each other’s drafts. Any word that could be left out was ripped out. Great way to learn how to avoid unnecessary words and overly lengthy wordings. One of them actually became a well-respected investigative journalist.
2. What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
Our practice evolves with society, we have the privilege of being a the forefront of discussions about what makes society tick; black lives matters, global warming, corruption, sex tapes, royalty, #MeToo. Mixed with silly stuff. It’s great. I sometimes feel guilty about having done this for over two decades. But it’s just too much fun.
I guess what I like least is clients that have trouble giving responsibility to their people, empowering them.
3. What was your highest profile or most memorable case?
I have dealt with so many cases that are close to my heart, but perhaps the most memorable one was for Nadia Plesner, a Danish artist who studied at the Rietveld Academy of Art in Amsterdam. She had painted an image of a Sudanese boy, referring to Paris Hilton. As a form of criticism on how socialites like Paris Hilton attract more attention than the war torn region of Darfur. It was called ‘Simple Living’.
It turned out Louis Vuitton was not pleased, as they recognized their bag in the image. They sued her ex parte in LV’s hometown Paris and won. She was no longer allowed to exhibit the image. She then incorporated the character in a huge painting, reminiscent of Picasso’s Guernica, which she called ‘Darfurnica’. The painting was later showed in the Danish Herning Museum of Contemporary Art (Heart), who wanted to show their support of Nadia in the court cases she faced.
When she finished Darfurnica, she was studying in Amsterdam. As Louis Vuitton found the same bag they had protested against return in the Darfurnica painting, they opted to sue her ex parte once more. This time in Amsterdam. And Nadia was again faced with a court order forcing her to stop exhibiting the painting, on pain of a penalty of thousands of euros for each day she would continue. By the time she came back in Amsterdam from a holiday with her family in Denmark, and found the court order, she had already incurred thousands of euros in fines. It led to public outcry, and the attention of the world’s media (including an invitation for Oprah, though that was withdrawn in the end). In The Netherlands cartoonists targeted Louis Vuitton and a huge mural of Simple Living appeared in the South of the country.
In the end, justice prevailed and my colleague and fellow MLRC veteran Christien Wildeman (recently turned judge) and me were able to have the court order rescinded.
Another quite special case was for a newspaper client who was sued twice by a person who wanted to prevent the paper from revealing that she was actually not a prostitute. She was adamant that she was a (retired) sex worker. She had written a bestseller about her supposed time in the red light district and acted as advisor for the city of Amsterdam on prostitution matters. The court twice confirmed that our client de Volkskrant could expose her as a non-prostitute.
4. Are you able to maintain a decent work-life balance? What are some rules you follow?
I do most of the times. Especially compared to US and UK attorneys. Sometimes it is important to shut off and take care not to unnecessarily create deadlines that are too tight. To answer an evening email the next day, unless there is a real reason to get to it immediately. I have three boys and I take the time to take care of them. I need to, as a divorced dad with the kids who are with me half of the time. They go first. And I take and have the time to sometimes pick them up from school, to coach them and be there for them. So yes, I think I do.
5. I have 48 hours in Amsterdam: What are your top recommendations for an American lawyer to see or do?
Rent a bike and drive over the canals. I mean, let’s face it, we have one of the most beautiful old centres in the world. Trust me, I am objective.
Or take the very touristy (but great) canal boat trips. Go see Rijksmuseum. Walk through the 9 streets. Go ice skating if you are lucky enough the canals and lakes freeze over (which they did a few weeks ago).
We have these typical Amsterdam bars where nothing has changed for decades, where the age ranges from 20 to 70 and where a DJ pops up in a tiny closet late at night and people dance. That’s where you want to end up. The story goes the bar had closed for about 20 years and just opened its doors again without anything changing.
6. Fake news, Sullivan under attack, reporters under attack – will things get worse before they get better?
Not sure whether the old days were better. Fake news has always been here I guess, though of course it can spread like fire now. In my country we have a serious problem with organized crime; judges, DA’s , attorneys and journalists that need to live in safe houses and move around protected by armed guards. It’s crazy.
7. What’s the best advice you got as a novice lawyer?
Don’t be afraid of making mistakes and only specialize in something you think is fun. Otherwise you’ll suck at it.
8. Heineken or Grolsch? Young or Old Genever? Hollandse Nieuwe (raw herring) or Bitterballen (Dutch meat balls)?
Grolsch, of course. With a herring with onions and pickles.
9. Best Dutch footballer of the last 20 years and why? Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder?
Dennis Bergkamp actually. Football is a bit of a national trauma. We usually think we have the best team in the world but somehow never win the world cup. Very odd.
10. : Spinoza: Overrated? Underrated? Just right?
Spinoza cannot be overrated. Not sure where this question came from (we did not talk this through), apart from him being Dutch, because I am a huge fan. I actually think that Spinoza is one of the most impressive historical figures I know of. The guts he had. It’s amazing. In a world where religion was pivotal and everyone believed in a god, and not following one of the religions was an act of heresy that could very well end your life, Spinoza chose his own path. Leaving his Jewish religion, and writing about how god in his mind was more inclusive, and less of a paper god with strict rules. A god closer to nature. He was lightyears ahead of his age. And was willing to risk risk everything to let reason prevail.
As someone who, like Spinoza, originates from a family of Sephardic jews (my grandma was Lopes Dias, my grandfather Van den Brink; so I got the more crappy last name), I have been fascinated by Spinoza and the history of the many other Portuguese Jews who fled the inquisition and (some one or two hundred years later) ended up in The Netherlands. My dad and his mother had to go in hiding during the war. A large part of the family was slaughtered in the camps, one great-uncle survived Auschwitz and had the camp tattoo on his arm. The family that took my father and grandmother in hiding the longest actually had kids themselves. They risked everything, including the lives of their own children, to save their friends. That is what it takes to defend a humane society in the face of terror and people like Hitler, Stalin or Putin. It’s amazing and no one can predict what he or she would do in that situation. But I am afraid that if you are not willing to risk absolutely everything, dictators, genocide and horror can prevail.
Going back to Spinoza, I am not a religious person, neither is my family. But religion fascinates me. Like, how is it possible that it still plays such a major role in the US (where a non Christian president seems unimaginable), whereas in Europe religion seems something of the past. The feeling you get when walking down the streets of Jerusalem, or Benares, India, where religion and history is dripping from the walls, is literally out-of-this-world.
Ok, I think my former co-editors of the university magazine would have ridiculed me for using way too much text. So I’ll stop.