October 17, 2013 | Category: Blog | Author:

Courts of law and public opinion

 Staged readings of the play “8” raised money for marriage equality efforts and rallied support for the cause.


Why does communications — or storytelling, you might say — matter when fighting for justice through the courts? In other words, if you’re already trying to make change through the legal system, what difference does it make what stories you tell or how you communicate to anyone but the judge?

That’s the question I addressed in a recent blog post for the Communications Network. I drew from a conference session of theirs I attended on “impact litigation” — court cases where the rulings will affect a lot of people, not just the litigants — and the national discussion on marriage equality. Speakers included Felix Schein of Griffin|Schein, and Adam Umhoefer of the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), two key organizations in the fight for marriage equality in the courts of law and public opinion. Following are selections from that blog post.

For one thing, communications matters for fundraising. Okay, maybe not so much in the case of AFER, which was launched almost entirely with funds from a tiny handful of donors, among them record mogul David Geffen. But for other impact litigation groups, it can be tough to get foundation or other financial support, said Schnein in the conference session, because there’s a sense that it’s a “binary”—you either win the case or you lose. So it’s hard for an organization’s executive director to go to a foundation and ask for a grant for a case they may very well lose, or after the fact to report, “We spent $1 million on this case and we lost.” But Schein disagrees with that perceived binary; if you run a good a communications effort, he says, you can leverage a legal case to change public opinion, regardless of the court’s decision. That boosts nonprofits’ chances of securing foundation support.

Changing public opinion not only matters for fundraising, of course, but for the cause, too. There was a not insignificant shift in public opinion on marriage equality between the passage of Proposition 8 and this summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling. That was thanks in part to AFER’s work around the case. On its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was heard in Federal District Court, where the judge ruled that the proceedings could not be televised. However, once the transcript of the hearing was released, AFER enlisted Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk” and “J. Edgar”) to pen “8”—a play based on original interviews and court transcripts. A one-night-only staged reading of the play in NYC and LA by such stars as Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, and Brad Pitt raised a big pile of cash for AFER, and the script was made available for any community group to do their own staged reading and talkback. (See the video above.) Community productions and a YouTube video of the play have been watched over a million times. Who knows if it changed any minds, but it certainly rallied the base. And it raised money to make change in other ways.

Read my entire blog post here.