At the same time, journalists are engaged not only in the work of newsgathering, but also the work of news curation: deciding what is valuable, giving advice, and working collaboratively with non-journalists to achieve journalistic values in society. Journalists now might do reporting, as they’ve done before, or they might work with some NGO to get the information out, or they might interact with their readership or with the general public in order to get information that’s relevant to democracy out into the public. This is a cooperative, curatorial model that a lot of people have been talking about recently, and now we just see that extending to cooperation with attorneys.
Has it become more difficult for journalists to access information?
JB: We’re in the middle of building out what I call a national surveillance state, which is a state that does a lot of the work of government by analyzing and collecting information. As they ramp up these features, we need to find out what government is doing, what kind of information it’s collecting, how it’s collecting it, whether it’s abusing its privileges or not.
At the same time, as the nature of government changes, as new programs get created and implemented, there is a natural bureaucratic tendency to resist inspection and investigation. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see governments become a little stingier than they were before. Certainly the Bush administration took a relatively hard line on these issues, and the jury is still out on what the Obama administration’s policy is going to be.
How has the clinic changed from how you first envisioned it a year ago?
NS: The most surprising thing is how quickly people have been willing to give us work. We have a relationship with The New York Times, for example, and if you had asked me when we were starting this out last year if I would ever talk to someone at The New York Times and help them with legal work, I would have laughed at you. It turns out that they’ll ask us for advice and they’ll be like, “Hey we have a case on this—take it, run with it, go for it.” We have the same relationship with the ACLU and a variety of people, and it’s because so much is changing and people have a need for bodies, and we have them and we’re free.
How is the externship funded?
JB: Right now the funding is coming from the law school; we have a little bit of money from the law school’s Knight Law and Media Program we can use. The externship is less expensive than a full clinic, but it’s also limited in terms of the jurisdictions in which it can take cases and the kind of things students can do. We are in the process of trying to raise funds to hire a full-time clinical professor so that we can expand and do more work. Ideally, we’d like to take cases nationwide and we even want to do some international work, but in an externship model that’s not really possible.
What are your long-term goals?
NS: I deeply, deeply believe that it’s important to have more methods for spreading ideas than just litigation. I would love to see us start a YouTube channel, and to get to the point where if people Google “what to do if accused of defamation,” we come up as a place where you can not necessarily get legal advice, but learn the landscape. I’d like to be the source that puts out the policy papers that people look up when they want to know what is going on in this field, so we’re your one-stop shop for information.
Do you see any drawbacks to taking this type of work out of the newsroom and into the nonprofit arena?
JB: I can think of advantages. An NGO might be able to defend some interests that a major metropolitan newspaper would regard as secondary. It might be willing to do the kind of FOIA work that a major metropolitan newspaper wouldn’t invest in because it’s time-consuming and expensive.