When a frustrated upstate journalist reaches for the Bat Phone, they’ll probably hear Michael J. Grygiel’s voice on the other end. The Albany attorney springs to action when members of the media find themselves locked out of court proceedings or blocked from important records. He also helps media organizations defend against libel or defamation suits and other claims. In essence, Grygiel keeps the free press free.
“Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of a working and open democratic system of government,” says Grygiel, a partner at Hiscock & Barclay. “It is one of the cherished freedoms that separates the United States from many other countries.”
As chair of his firm’s media and First Amendment law practice area, his days are hectic—often stretching to 12 hours—but all that work leads to impressive victories. In a case representing the Syracuse Post-Standard, his team got access to court documents in civil proceedings under the First Amendment. A shopping center developer tried to keep them sealed amidst allegations of financial impropriety. Another case upheld the free speech rights of controversial radio talk show host J.R. Gash after he called a day care provider a murderer on air when an infant died in the person’s care.
Grygiel has worked with a long list of major media clients, including CBS News, Clear Channel Communications, the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, Bloomberg News and the Gannett Company. With a roster like that, he has to be a media junkie, devouring several newspapers each day, some cable TV news, plus a bookmark folder full of Web sites.
His career as a Fourth Estate bodyguard started with a constitutional law class that piqued Grygiel’s interest while he was an undergraduate at Hamilton College. “I find it very interesting that the Constitution set up a system of government that has endured in this country for over two centuries,” he says. After graduating from Temple University School of Law in 1983, he returned to Hamilton College as the director of the Arthur Levitt Public Policy Center. For six years, he spent the bulk of his time teaching First Amendment and constitutional law.
From there, Grygiel worked in the media defense practice at a large Washington, D.C., law firm before moving to Albany in 1991. He has worked for Hiscock & Barclay since April 2006. When he helps journalists gain access to information such as court records, Grygiel believes the resulting news reports give people the basis to understand the court proceedings and maintain trust and confidence in the system. “I see the First Amendment as a permanent guarantee of protection for all citizens of this country,” he says.
Recently, he represented the Glens Falls Post Star after a new law went into effect allowing the state to confine sex offenders even after their prison terms ended. These proceedings were going to be held behind closed doors, but Grygiel’s efforts resulted in their being conducted in open court. “We had to act very quickly to protect their legal rights,” he says.
It’s the kind of swift justice you’d expect from the man on the other end of the Bat Phone.