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Announcing the First Grants from the Legal Clinic Fund

When a hyperlocal publisher in California was forced to stop reporting on a high-profile criminal case by a local District Attorney, the University of California Irvine’s Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic provided free legal representation and got the gag order lifted.

When the state of Vermont tried to withhold documents from local journalists covering a $200 million Ponzi-like scheme that defrauded foreign investors, Cornell University’s First Amendment Clinic filed suit and won access for the local nonprofit publisher VT Digger.

Across the country, independent journalists and new nonprofit newsrooms are working to cover their communities and hold local leaders accountable. But often, they are doing so without the kind of legal support and backing that journalists have traditionally enjoyed. Even longstanding local commercial newsrooms are less and less able to fight the First Amendment battles that have long protected our fundamental rights. This is not just dangerous for the press, but for all of us, as new legal threats seek to undermine freedom of information, access, and accountability. 

That is why a group of funders came together in May to launch the Legal Clinics Fund designed to support legal clinics at universities around the country that focus on defending the first amendment and serving local journalists. The Legal Clinics Fund was established by Democracy Fund, Heising-Simons Foundation, and The Klarman Family Foundation because they believe that legal clinics can provide a strong backbone for legal support around the country at a time when journalists are facing a range of new threats. These clinics, housed at law schools around the country, can help confront the immediate legal needs of a changing journalism landscape while also cultivating a new generation of First Amendment lawyers.

Today we are announcing the first round of grant recipients of the Legal Clinics Fund:

The University of Buffalo Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic

The Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic will expand its focus on supporting journalism and investigative reporting, particularly with respect to independent journalists, newsrooms, and nonprofits in Western New York and the surrounding regions. The grant will fund a new year round Free Speech & Transparency Legal Fellow and two summer law students to ensure the clinic can provide uninterrupted support of their expanded docket. This added capacity will allow the clinic to represent clients they have not had the capacity to serve previously.

Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic

The Harvard Law School‘s Cyberlaw Clinic will launch the Initiative for a Representative First Amendment (IfRFA), which will fund two years of fellowships for law students from backgrounds underrepresented in First Amendment practice. The fellows will have access to seminars, workshops and professional support to advance their careers, and be placed at clinics around the country to expand their capacity to take on First Amendment fights locally. The program will prioritize students that are at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities and clinics chosen to take fellows will receive formalized inclusion training to enhance their clinical teaching and practice activities.

University of California Irvine Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology Clinic

The Press Freedom and Transparency practice at the Intellectual Property, Arts, and Technology (IPAT) Clinic at University of California Irvine will provide pro bono legal services to independent journalists, documentary filmmakers, bloggers, media advocacy groups, and others, with a particular focus on California. This grant will expand IPAT’s capacity to provide pre-publication legal advice for high-risk investigative reporting, fight to unseal court records and unearth government records, and challenge unconstitutional restraints on press freedoms such as gag orders. IPAT will also offer local newsrooms seminars on journalists’ legal rights.

The Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic

The Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic will expand its Local Journalism Project, a special initiative of the clinic that serves local and regional newsgatherers in New York, Vermont, Pennsylvania and nearby states who cannot otherwise afford representation. The Local Journalism Project will help journalists leverage freedom of information laws to unlock critical public records, defend journalists against retaliation from policymakers ands represent newsgatherers who are sued for defamation by defendants attempting to chill expression. This grant will allow the Local Journalism Project to expand both the number and the geographical reach of the matters it can handle on behalf of local journalists and media outlets.

This is the first year of the Legal Clinic Fund and we are using it as a learning opportunity to understand how best to support these important advocates and the local newsrooms around them. To that end, we are partnering with The Impact Architects who will be our learning partners supporting the Fund and our grantees to help us understand how to build legal support for an industry in transition.

The funders of the Legal Clinic Fund are grateful to the Miami Foundation for hosting the fund and for providing critical support for the Fund’s operations, and to Estizer Smith of Impactual, Nabiha Syed of the Markup, and Kate Howard of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting for serving as grant reviewers and advisors for the fund.

The Fund received 15 applications from colleges and universities across the country. Over and over again, we heard about legal clinics that had to turn down cases because they didn’t have the staff or resources to take on every case that came their way. This means local newsrooms and independent journalists are left more vulnerable to efforts designed to silence them and squash their reporting. When that happens, stories go unreported, and we are all left a little more in the dark.

There are many more clinics that deserve support and many more local communities and newsrooms that need representation. As such, the Legal Clinics Fund is inviting additional funders to join the effort. If you want to learn more about the Legal Clinic Fund, contact Josh Stearns at Democracy Fund.

Photo at top of page: Local journalists at work from High Country News, Groundtruth Project, Texas Tribune, Public Source, CALMatters, Marshall Project. All photos courtesy of the Institute for Nonprofit News.