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.
The model we had before assumed that the interests of newspapers were coextensive with the interests of free speech and with a free press generally, and that was always a kind of seat-of-the-pants assumption. These organizations, which were for-profit enterprises, were treated as a proxy for the public interest, but of course if you thought about it for a moment you would realize that a for-profit enterprise—which has to answer to its shareholders, as newspapers increasingly have to do—is not a perfect proxy for the pubic interest. So an NGO or a nonprofit clinic at a law school might be able to provide a different perspective, and between these two types of organizations the joint sum of their work might better approximate the public interest.
NS: I would lament the day when we replace a lawyer in the newsroom who has a personal relationship; that would be tragic. Where we can be situated is where people don’t have other options or they’re priced out of other options or they have don’t have time for them. That’s where we can step up.