Ron Barber, a staunch legal defender of the First Amendment and student journalism, died Thursday, July 6, at age 56, of complications from prostate cancer.
Barber — who graduated from Pitt Law in 1989 after completing his undergrad studies at Pitt in 1983 — offered pro-bono legal services to The Pitt News, where he served as the opinions editor as a student. Former Pitt Newsers remember Barber for his eagerness to offer time and expertise to students.
Katelyn Polantz, The Pitt News’ Editor-in-Chief in 2009, was grateful for Barber’s presence at the paper — functioning both as a teacher and lawyer.
“We were lucky he was our pro bono counsel,” she said. “We were even luckier he was our teacher.”
Polantz remembered Barber’s assistance during the 2009 post-Super Bowl riots. She heard Pitt police were planning on serving warrants to obtain video shot by the paper. She contacted Barber, who sent an email to the chancellor’s office regarding the warrants.
“The Pitt chief of police called me within 15 minutes to say they wouldn’t [pursue] the footage,” Polantz recounted. “When I told Ron, he responded, ‘I hereby take full credit!’”
Another former Pitt News editor, Amy Friedenberger, was similarly appreciative of Barber’s expertise, something she found especially valuable as a student journalist.
“The Pitt News is a classroom and Ron Barber played an important role in helping students understand legal issues,” she said. “He understood the importance of a student press and he continued to be an advocate through his pro bono work.”
Friedenberger said many people didn’t know of Barber’s work at The Pitt News, an example of his humility.
“He wasn’t doing it for attention or anything,” she said. “I think he genuinely wanted to help students grow and develop.
Many former Pitt News editors remember Barber’s calming and helpful presence as they covered the G-20 protests in 2009. Former editor Liz Navraril recalls reporters writing Barber’s number on their body before they covered the protests, though she said most of her interactions with Barber weren’t that dramatic.
“He had a calming presence as he described the facts of various court cases and used those rulings to guide your decisions about whether or not to publish something,” she said.
Barber’s wife and fellow attorney Jean Novak remembered Barber’s personality similarly, saying he was “very gentle, very kind and ethical to the point of where people would comment on how ethically he conducted himself.”
“He loved working with The Pitt News. It was one of the joys of his life,” Novak said, adding that he was very proud of the professional accomplishments of the students he taught.
His greatest accomplishment, Novak said, were his two children, Zachary and Alexandra.
In addition to offering The Pitt News pro bono work, Barber specialized in cases related to freedom of speech and the First Amendment.
He worked on a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case, Tribune-Review Publishing Company v. Westmoreland County Housing Authority, in 2003. Barber argued successfully that the Housing Authority’s confidential settlement in a civil rights case was part of the public record — legally giving journalists and the public access to the information.
Barber taught media law at Pitt as an adjunct professor. Polantz said she still remembers Barber’s teachings in her current job as a reporter, a sentiment echoed by former visual editor Vaughn Wallace.
“He didn’t focus on trying to trip us up, instead offering practical advice in the gentle, knowledgeable way he was known for,” Wallace said. “I still draw upon what he taught us about landmark media law cases in my day-to-day job as a journalist.”
His media law class was “a milestone” for anyone with aspirations of becoming a journalist, Navraril said. Barber’s class was a few hours long, she said, and the class predicted how long the class would last based on in he had a cup of coffee or not.
Navraril said every Pitt News alum she knows is grateful to have worked with Barber.
“I sincerely hope that every young journalist is lucky enough to have their own Ron Barber one day,” she said.