Law grad turned UF journalism professor has passion for First Amendment, family
By Jared Misner
Sandra Chance (JD 90), whose job is to fight for the right to speak freely, sits silently in her third-floor conference room overlooking Florida Field.
She’s silent for a solid 45 seconds, trying to think of what she’s most proud in her life.
For a woman who has filed two amicus briefs to the United States Supreme Court, serves as the executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and was named the Scripps-Howard National Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2005 as well as UF’s McClatchy Professor in Freedom of Information, 45 seconds of silence seems almost too soon for an answer.
She smiles, her cheeks flush up into her eyes, and the silence comes to an end.
It’s her family.
“I’ve made the world a better place,” she said, “through them.”
And if you weren’t one of the 5,000 undergraduate and graduate students Chance estimates to have taught the law of mass communication to during her longstanding tenure as equal parts professor and warrior for free speech, or one of the students who affectionately refers to Chance as “Sandy” in an online evaluation, if you didn’t know this is a lawyer who also bakes dozens of her own chocolate-chip cookies to share with her students on just an ordinary Wednesday, then you might think those were the lifeless words of a media-trained attorney just working the crowds.
“What we do professionally is really important,” she said. “But the people who will remember us the most are our family.”
But Chance said there’s so much her family just doesn’t remember. Like when Chance entered law school with three children (her son Dean was 11, Justin was 3 and Caroline was 2) and put them to bed every night at 9, studied until 1 a.m. and then woke at 6 a.m. every day during her first year. She doesn’t think they remember that.
Or the commute at 5 a.m. every Tuesday from Gainesville to work in Holland & Knight’s media law division in Tampa until Thursday evening for two years after she graduated. She doesn’t think they remember that either.
She and her husband, Michael, whom she’s been married to for 37 years, arranged their schedules so they’d always have the weekends with family.
And this is why Chance says her name might be a bit of a misnomer. Her story has nothing to do with chance. Her story is one of passion (for family, for the First Amendment, for teaching), of hard work and, of course, chocolate-chip cookies.
Chance wanted to go to law school right after completing her undergraduate degree from UF’s College of Journalism and Communications, but moved to Iowa so her husband could finish chiropractor college. There she took a job as an editorial assistant at the Iowa-Illinois Gas & Electric Co., where she edited the monthly employee magazine and the weekly newsletter.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was the right decision,” Chance said of her choice to begin studying law in the late 1980s after returning to Florida.
Right or not, it was a decision that would forever alter her life – and her resume.
Chance would gain experience as assistant general counsel in UF’s Student Legal Services, a position on the board of directors for the First Amendment Foundation, the Sunshine Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists and her current roles as executive director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and a UF professor.
“I wake up every day feeling really, really lucky that I get to do this,” Chance said.
And even though she said a few of her students they think she’s ridiculous for passing up “the big bucks” at Holland & Knight, she knows she’s lucky.
“I can affect and have an impact on so many more students in this position than I could anywhere else,” Chance said. “And I’m very proud of what the Center has done and what we continue to do.”
One of those students is Christina Locke (JD 07).
“She’s a great role model in that she has a great career, raised a great family and is always on the lookout for me,” said Locke, who worked alongside Chance in the Brechner Center during her entire law school career. “She’s been an amazing mentor.”
But to say Chance acted as a mentor to Locke only during those three years would only be a half-truth.
“Even before I applied (to UF Law), I wanted to work at the Brechner Center and help with what they do,” Locke said, adding she used to read the Center’s Brechner Report like other 20-somethings read fashion magazines. Locke would eventually go on to edit the Brechner Report and teach her own class of undergraduate students this past summer.
She figures that she has the responsibility of influencing opinion leaders, legislators and the public about the importance of open record laws, the First Amendment, as she calls it, “the cornerstone of democracy.” Chance is an attorney who also has to decide just how much brown sugar to put in her chocolate-chip cookies.
She’s a watchdog for free speech who has the bigger responsibility of teaching students why the First Amendment is cool.
“To have taught (my students) something meaningful and to have changed some lives along the way,” Chance said, “is extraordinarily gratifying.”