Dan Byron · 2017
Dan Byron says his career in media law was “accidental.”
If that’s the case, journalists in Indiana as well as Africa and Asia can thank their lucky stars that accident occurred.
Byron has represented the interests of newspapers and broadcast stations over the last 45 years. It all started because he was the sole litigator at the McHale law firm when WISH-TV in Indianapolis was facing an invasion of privacy case.
Pauline Smith was shot in the head by her estranged husband but survived. The husband killed himself after shooting her. As she was wheeled out of her home, TV reporters were allowed into the home by the police. The coverage included video of blood-spattered walls and toys.
Her lawsuit claimed she had not given permission for the media to enter the home, and the invasion of her privacy had caused her to suffer mental anguish.
As the law firm’s only litigator, Byron was handed the case 10 days before its trial. He found a Texas Court of Appeals case that said when police took over control of a crime scene, they had the authority to bring onto the property anyone they wanted. He convinced the judge to add that position as part of the jury instructions.
It took the jury only 5 minutes to reach a verdict in favor of the TV station, and Byron’s media law career was launched.
Born in Indianapolis April 2, 1937, to Paul and Helen Byron, Dan Byron grew up in their Scipio, Indiana, home with his brother, Billy, and sister, Kathlyn. Paul Byron had a career at Cummins in Columbus, and upon his retirement was a Realtor. Helen Byron wrote for the North Vernon Plain Dealer for four years before becoming a full-time mother, so maybe Dan Byron’s interest in the First Amendment was first sparked by her
Byron graduated from North Vernon High School in 1955 and from Indiana University with a degree in political science and minors in economics and philosophy. He went straight into law school at Indiana University, graduating in 1962.
Because he was enrolled in Advanced ROTC, Byron went into the U.S. Army. He was in its Ranger School when the Cuban Missile Crisis hit in October. He later transferred into the JAG Corp and finished his duty in April of 1966 in Seoul, South Korea, where he was the chief counsel for the 8th Army.
Returning to Indiana, he practiced for a year with C.W.H. Bangs in Huntington before joining the staff of U.S. Attorney Dick Stein. Within two-and-a-half years, Byron rose to the position of First Assistant U.S. Attorney.
He joined the McHale law firm in 1969. That firm now is Bingham Greenebaum Doll, with Byron as a partner.
After his first media case, Byron built a client base that included additional TV stations and newspapers, and he became the counsel for the Indiana Broadcasters Association in 2002. He also has done amicus work for entities such as the Hoosier State Press Association Foundation.
The IBA in 2008 awarded Byron its highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award, as an individual who has made significant contributions to Indiana broadcasting with the highest standards of professional conduct and ethics.
He was the first attorney to successfully use Indiana’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute to defend a newspaper from a frivolous libel lawsuit. The 2003 lawsuit had been brought by Michiana Shores council member Jean Poulard against The Post-Dispatch (Michigan City), its publisher Geoffrey Moser, editor Dave Hawk, reporter Erin Carey, council president Lyal Lauth and others. The judge not only dismissed the case, but awarded the newspaper $12,000 as compensation for the legal costs to defend itself.
Byron also was the first attorney to successfully apply Indiana’s anti-SLAPP statute in federal court, defending LIN-TV Corp. and WISH-TV reporter Karen Hensel from a libel lawsuit filed by CanaRx, a Canadian pharmaceutical company that was the subject of a critical broadcast concerning the importation of prescription drugs. In that case, the judge awarded LIN $120,000 to cover its legal defense costs in 2008.
In 2007, the International Senior Lawyers Project asked Byron to advise a team of East African lawyers in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. With the support of his wife, Lynne, and sons Michael and Craig, he accepted. Byron taught journalists how to avoid criminal libel charges that could be brought when reporters wrote stories critical of government officials.
In his two months’ work in Africa, he helped the Media Foundation of West Africa present the first human rights case brought before the Economic Community of West African States Court of Justice. The case was brought on behalf of presumed murdered newspaper editor Chief Manneh against the dictatorial Gambian government of President Yahya Jammeh.
After Manneh reprinted a BBC editorial on the corrupt practices of Jammeh, the Gambian secret police entered Manneh’s newspaper and took him away. A witness saw a badly beaten Manneh in a prison hospital before the secret police removed him from his hospital bed. He was never seen again.
In June 2008, the court affirmed a verdict against Gambia for illegally seizing Manneh and awarded Manneh’s family $100,000 for his disappearance at the hands of Jammeh’s secret police.
Back home in Indiana, Byron has testified before Indiana General Assembly committees as an expert on the First Amendment, most recently on bills concerning the ability to report on agricultural operations (Ag-Gag legislation) and the public’s access to police body camera video.
“Whatever the circumstances, Dan has been a true professional, unflappable in the face of opposition and completely committed to the First Amendment,” said Stephen Key, executive director and general counsel for the Hoosier State Press Association.
His experiences here and abroad have deepened his appreciation for the need of a free press.
“I’ve learned how valuable to democracy are the freedoms of speech and the press,” Byron said. “If you don’t have it, you don’t have a democracy.”
By Steve Key, HSPA