The need for press freedom and government transparency is as urgent today as ever, but the newsrooms that long defended key rights have fewer resources. A year-old externship program at Yale Law School is trying to help. The ten students in the Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum work pro bono to support journalists on issues ranging from national security to online speech to access to state and federal records, and have already represented more than a dozen clients. In May, Rachael Scarborough King spoke with Jack Balkin, Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment and the practicum’s supervisor, and Nabiha Syed, a recent graduate who was one of the four founding students.

Is this project part of a move toward nonprofit models?
JB:
One of the big trends this clinic is part of is what I would call the disaggregation of the functions of the twentieth-century newspaper. Legal clinics and ngos that do not understand themselves to be journalistic enterprises nevertheless are engaged in litigation that uncovers information that is of value to the public. Just as some nonprofits have taken on some of the work of investigative journalism, so too might some nonprofits take on some of the work of defending media freedoms.

How has the clinic changed from what you first envisioned? 
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, and if you had asked me when we were starting this last year if I would help the Times with legal work, I would have laughed. So much is changing, and people have a need for bodies, and we have them and we’re free. 

Has it become more difficult for journalists to get access to information?
JB:
We’re in the middle of building out what I call a national surveillance state, which is a state that does the work of government by analyzing and collecting information. We need to find out what kind of information the government is collecting, how it’s collecting it, whether it’s abusing its privileges or not. At the same time, there is a natural bureaucratic tendency to resist inspection. So it wouldn’t be surprising that governments would become a little stingier.

Do you see drawbacks to taking this type of work out of the newsroom?
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 FOIA work that the paper wouldn’t invest in because it’s time-consuming and expensive. The sum of their work might in fact better approximate the public interest.

NS: I hope we don’t replace a lawyer in the newsroom who has a personal relationship. We can help where people don’t have other options, or they’re priced out of other options, or they have don’t have time for them.

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Rachael Scarborough King is a former reporter for The New Haven Register and a Ph.D. candidate in English and American literature at New York University.