Substack launches Defender, a program offering legal support to independent writers

Brian Heater

In the worlds of journalism and publishing, it’s fairly common for the wealthy to attempt to shut down reporting with legal threats. For those publishing on large platforms with plenty of resources, such challenges can be a massive headache. For independent writers and publishers, on the other hand, the consequences can be far more dire.

Citing an example wherein a politician’s lawyers recently went after a Substack writer over reports of business ties, the popular newsletter platform is announcing the launch of Defender. After some months in a closed pilot with a "handful" of writers, Substack is extending the service to interested parties.

There’s a form now on Substack’s site. To qualify, users must be based in the U.S. and use Substack for professional work. Co-founder/COO Hamish McKenzie says the company has no current commitment to extending the program to free users (though that could certainly change), but it’s using the U.S. program to determine when and where to more broadly expand Defender.

Writers also need to publish work “that may attract unreasonable legal pressure, such as abuses of copyright laws, assaults on first amendment rights, and spurious defamation claims.” Once approved, they’ll need to fill out a second form detailing the specific case for which they need support. Substack will approve users on a case by case basis, as well as which cases it ultimately supports.

The company says it’s willing to cover fees of up to $1 million, though “in exceptional cases, we may cover even more.” Such cases will continue to be fascinating tests of the First Amendment, particularly in an era when Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has come under strong fire from the president of the United States.

“Important writing holds the powerful to account – and quite often, that’s an arrangement that the powerful would rather not support,” Substack writes. “In some cases, antagonists use threats of legal action in an attempt to stop the work that makes them uncomfortable.”

As de-platforming has increasingly become a part of the social media landscape, eyes will no doubt be on Substack as the service decides which cases it ultimately chooses to cover. From the sound of its description, Defender will largely focus on reportage — though in such a fragmented media landscape, even that can be in the eye of the beholder.

The launch of Defender follows a few months after Substack introduced a $100,000 grant to support independent writers.