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Get to Know: Cristina Tilley

Cristina Tilley, Associate Professor of Law

At the UI since: July 2017


Two daughters. 

Alma Mater: 
B.S.J. Northwestern University, Medill School of Journalism
J.D., Northwestern University

What did you do before joining Iowa Law? I graduated from Northwestern University Law School, where I was Editor in Chief of the Northwestern University Law Review and went on to teach as a Visiting Assistant Professor. After law school, I clerked for Judge Richard D. Cudahy of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. I also worked in the Appellate Litigation Group at Mayer Brown on asbestos cases and First Amendment matters.  Prior to my law career, I was a news reporter, specializing in business and legal affairs at United Press International and other publications.

Most recently, I was teaching at Loyola Chicago Law School. Before that, I taught both undergrads and law students at Northwestern. 

As an undergraduate, I always intended to go to law school eventually, but my training was in journalism and I was intrigued by doing reporting. It struck me as something to try while I was young, and I loved it because it was a free license to learn. I could pick up the phone and call anyone and most would talk to me. It happened that a lot of what I was doing was legal affairs coverage. 

That was great, and I had a lot of really unique opportunities. I covered the Supreme Court occasionally when I worked in D.C., and the attorney general nominee hearings in the Clinton Administration, and I was at the American Bar Association when Vice President Quayle launched the Bush Administration’s tort reform initiative, so reporting was really a sort of free ticket to a lot of important events. Towards the end, though, I started feeling rude asking questions about sensitive subjects that I knew people were reluctant to discuss.  I found that I really had to take a deep breath before asking them those questions, and I realized it was time to get out of the business.  But it worked out because I always knew I wanted to head to law school eventually. 

What courses do you teach? I am teaching Torts in the fall and Media Law in the spring.

What does your scholarship entail? I’m really interested in the question of the comparative competencies of public law and private law and how and why we differentiate between public and private law treatment of certain issues. 

The most concrete instance of that private-public clash that interests me is what we do when someone is injured by speech.  There is often an impulse to want them to be compensated for that injury but that’s in tension with protecting free speech rights. Public law gives people the right to speak freely, while private law wants to give someone a remedy in a situation like that. So, navigating the balance of those two values is tricky but important.   And of course, as a former reporter, I’m intrigued by the legal treatment of press behavior.  

Another strand of my research examines how the media cover legal issues. For example, the press asks for and justifies the legal latitude that it gets when covering trials by contending that it is providing a public education function. So I’ve been investigating how the press attempts to teach the public about the legal system.  It’s easier to evaluate the benefits of press access when you have good information about what the press does with its access. 

I did a project a couple years ago looking at how the press uses footage from trials. I was trying to determine how journalists use the footage from the courtroom, and found that they’re usually playing the tape as a visual while the reporter or anchor does a voiceover. There’s evidence suggesting people who watch pictures that are dissonant with the words they’re hearing often misunderstand the words.  If that’s right, courtroom footage might not be enhancing information uptake the way we assume. 

I’m working on another project right now with a co-author that studies press coverage of Brown v. Board of Education compared with coverage of a more recent school desegregation case. We have coded all the stories to see whether the press puts more emphasis on purely legal matters like the constitutional provision at issue, or on the political ideologies of the justices. We seem to be finding that in the 50’s, the coverage was more tied to legal doctrine whereas now, it depicts the court much more as a political institution. Readers are essentially being told the Court is just as political as other branches of government. And we are trying to determine how that might impact public opinion about the judiciary.

How did you decide to join the legal profession? I liked that at its best, it had a capacity to invite serious debate about important issues. There are opportunities for smart, informed, interested people to think about the rules that should guide our behavior and I think it’s an honor to be a part of that. 

What do you enjoy most about working in a higher education/law school setting? As a journalist, I was usually working on a daily deadline and had to file things in a short period of time. Now, I love that if something intrigues me and I want to spend six or 12 months looking into it and trying to understand the right approach, I have that luxury. 

The other thing I like about higher education is that, when you’ve been doing anything for a long period of time you take a lot of it for granted, and it’s great to be around people who bring a fresh eye and different understanding of social issues. Oftentimes, an innocuous question posed by a student encountering an idea for the first time will unsettle my way of thinking about an issue and send me on one of those 12-month projects. 

If you could spend a day with anyone, from any era, who would it be and why? Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post during the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate era. I have always found her to be a fascinating person for a lot of reasons. 

She was born into a privileged family and her social circle as a young wife and mother was, in many ways, running the country.  And yet she claimed to feel very ordinary, even insecure, for much of her life.  She took over the helm of the Post only when her husband died, and despite her grief and self-doubt, she propelled the paper to the forefront of the industry.  I would love to talk with her about how she marshalled her inner resources to become the formidable woman who reshaped 20th Century journalism and government. 

Name five of your favorite things. 

  • The West Wing Weekly Podcast
  • Billions (TV Show)
  • Door County, Wisconsin
  • I’ve discovered the Blue Bird Diner, which I like a lot . . .But there’s no better burger than the one at Superdawg in Chicago!

Is there anything else you want alums to know about you? I look forward to meeting them at the next alum event!

Cristina Tilley