By Melinda Rogers, media relations manager, University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law
RonNell Andersen Jones took an interesting path to becoming a law professor. A Box Elder County native, Jones grew up in rural Utah and set her sights on becoming a newspaper reporter.
She attended Utah State University in Logan, studying journalism and political science, which opened the door to her reporting ambitions. She later attended graduate school at The University of Nevada, focusing on communications. She worked as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Utah, Nevada and Ohio. Along the way, she discovered a passion for law after spending time on the courts beat.
She eventually enrolled in law school at The Ohio State University, where she graduated at the top of her class in 2000 and went on to clerk for Judge William A. Fletcher on the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court. After four years working as an attorney for Jones Day, where she focused on Supreme Court litigation, she entered academia.
Today, she’s considered to be one of the top experts on First Amendment and media law in the U.S. and on July 1 she added a new title to her repertoire: Professor of Law at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law.
Jones most recently served as associate dean of academic affairs and research at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School. Prior to her time teaching in Provo, she taught at the University of Arizona College of Law and also taught media law to journalism students at The Ohio State University and Ohio Wesleyan University.
Jones spoke to the S.J. Quinney College of Law about her new appointment at the University of Utah, her career so far and her future plans for the forthcoming academic year.
Q: What made you want to make the switch from a career in journalism to a career in law? Also, how did working in journalism help provide you with the backdrop to better understand media law and the issues facing media today?
A: The transition from journalism to law was a very natural one for me. Both careers value intellectual curiosity, precision in writing and a passion for public affairs, and both have proven to be really exciting and fulfilling professions for me. I’m extraordinarily lucky to have brought with me to legal academia much of what I loved about my work in the media. This is true both because I continue to think, teach and write about important dynamics in the changing world of journalism and because many of the most fundamental skills that I acquired as a journalist are valuable to me as a legal scholar. As a reporter and editor, I learned to think critically about important social questions and learned to dig for answers that weren’t always obvious. I learned how to consume a massive amount of information and translate it into a digestible format for my audience, and I learned to communicate clearly and efficiently. Those all turned out to be really significant components of the work of a law professor. Now, as I analyze the ways that the work of courts and legislatures impacts the work of journalists, I’m able to do it with a view of what it is like to be a journalist and with an appreciation for the real-world tensions that exist for the media. Many of the conferences I attend involve scholars from the world of journalism and communications, and I’m grateful to be able to stay involved in that world, because it still feels like it is very much my own.
Q: It’s been an interesting time in the media world, with the adaption of the 24-hour news cycle and monumental changes in both the way the news is delivered and consumed. How has the shifting media landscape affected the media law field? What would you identify as some of the biggest issues going on in media law right now?
A: The fast-changing media landscape is one of the most exciting things about my area of study. A lot of the law in this area — including virtually all of the major cases about press freedoms that have been handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court — came about at a time when “the media” was an easily identifiable group of newspapers and a small number of network news organizations and radio broadcasters. Mapping that law onto a modern scene of 24-hour cable commentators, bloggers and social media users is a complex and often controversial task, and that makes the work of scholars in my field really interesting and really important. As we transition away from the media of the 1960s and 70s and into a world of citizen journalism and Twitter and Facebook, there are a lot of hard questions to be asked and answered about what freedom of the press should look like. Much of my recent research has considered the potential impacts on our democracy as the legacy media die away, and has proposed ways that old doctrines, like reporter’s privilege and the law of libel, can be rethought to operate more sensibly in light of the media realities of our day. I think some of the most pressing matters in the area today are definitional issues, questioning who counts as “the press,” and access issues, questioning who will act as a check on our government and a community watchdog if we transition away from a strong institutional media.
Q: You’ve spent several years teaching and lecturing around the country. What drew you to the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law? What excites you about working here? What do you think sets the University of Utah apart from other law schools in the country?
A: Utah is home to me, and I think there is something special about the place that almost everyone who comes here experiences. I’m very much looking forward to joining a team of bright, innovative scholars on the faculty at S.J. Quinney, because I can see that they are as committed to using the law as a tool for good as I am. On issues ranging from environmental law to criminal law to bioethics and global justice, I think Utah has earned itself a reputation for being a place where national and international leaders in their fields not only earn acclaim for their scholarship but also engage students in creative ways and take seriously the obligation to contribute meaningfully to the world around them. It is a place that cares about community, and that’s very appealing to me.
Q: Tell us about the courses you’ll be teaching as well as any other ways you’ll be involved in working with students here in the forthcoming academic year. (I.E. Research opportunities, moot court, etc.). Also, what’s next for you on the research front? Any upcoming publications/books?
A: I will teach courses in Constitutional Law, The First Amendment and Media Law. I’m especially looking forward to teaching the first-year constitutional law course, because I find it really rewarding to work with students at the beginning of their legal educations. I’m excited to get to know a lot of them. I’m also excited to work with a team of smart, conscientious S.J. Quinney students who will be helping me with a research project that I’ve launched this summer, investigating the U.S. Supreme Court’s changing characterizations of the press over time.
Q: You’ve had many interesting experiences along your path to now working at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, including a clerkship with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. What was a memorable experience that you had working with Justice O’Connor?
A:It was a true honor to work closely with Justice O’Connor for a year as her law clerk, and I have been lucky to have her as a valuable mentor and cherished friend in the years since. She shares a special relationship with her law clerks and their families, holding big reunions where she spends time with each of her “grand clerks, “ which is what she calls the children of her former clerks. My favorite story about her relates to a visit we had with each other a few years after I clerked at the Court. She and I team-taught a course at the University of Arizona for a number of years, and it was always a treat for my family to get to spend time with her when she came to town to teach. One year, just before she arrived, I overheard my then-5-year-old son telling the other members of his soccer team that he would not be at practice the next day, because the Justice was coming to visit. “What’s a Justice?” one of the other kids asked. “Oh,” my son said, “that’s sort of a fancy word for grandmother.” I was of course a little embarrassed that I hadn’t clearly explained to my child what it meant to be a Justice of the United States Supreme Court, but I was also overcome with admiration and appreciation for her. I was so struck by what this said about her as a person. The New York Times had just run a story with a headline that called Justice O’Connor the most powerful woman in the world, but her interactions with my children sent the message that they were the most important people in the world.
Q: With those many experiences in your portfolio, what is one of the most important pieces of career advice you received along the way? What advice do you give students on how to move forward to have a successful career after law school?
A: I guess the answer to this question also makes me think about my time with Justice O’Connor. I learned a great deal from her about the importance of hard work, but also about the importance of living a balanced life. During the year that I worked for her, we got up at 6 a.m. every morning to do aerobics in the gymnasium on the top floor of the Supreme Court building. I remember one evening, when we were buried in work, facing a deadline for a really important opinion in a big case that had attracted a lot of public attention, I asked whether we might need to take the next morning off from aerobics to focus on that. She quickly replied, “Oh, goodness no! With the work we’re facing right now, it’s all the more important that we take care of ourselves.” I had, frankly, never been a person who felt especially good about my work-life balance, and she modeled for me a pattern of living a whole, complete life. That has benefited me more than she will ever know. I now try very hard to convey that same sense of balance to my students. Success doesn’t come without a lot of focused effort, to be sure, and law is a demanding profession that comes with an obligation to give our very best to our clients. I tell my students to expect to have to work hard for all of their careers. But I also try to help them see that the best lawyers are lawyers who have lives outside of the law—who are engaged meaningfully in their communities, devoted to their family and friends and committed to their own sense of balance and well-being.