The Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic defends free speech, privacy, and other individual rights while pressing for greater transparency and accountability in government.
The clinic works on behalf of individuals and client organizations at the local and national level, conducting litigation and policy advocacy to achieve systemic improvements in the law and to support investigative and government accountability work.
University at Buffalo
School of Law
507 O'Brian Hall, North Campus
Buffalo, NY 14260-1100
The Innocence Project, Inc. v. National Museum of Health and Medicine (SDNY)
The clinic is representing the Innocence Project in a First Amendment lawsuit challenging a federal museum’s denial of access to an important archive that documents the history of forensic bite mark methods, a flawed forensic science that has contributed to many false convictions. The lawsuit alleges that the museum’s denial was based on unlawful viewpoint discrimination, favoring one side in an important public debate by depriving the Innocence Project access to this public archive. The lawsuit also brings ancillary claims under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Innocence Project has been at the forefront of exposing the scientific flaws in forensic “bite mark” methods and exonerating individuals wrongfully convicted as a result. As part of this work, the Innocence Project sought access to a federal archive that houses decades of records about forensic dentistry. The archive would allow researchers to understand how this discredited forensic method evolved and could hold the key to identifying additional wrongful convictions. However, the federal museum that holds the archive refused to allow the Innocence Project access, apparently because the museum disagreed with the Innocence Project’s viewpoint and research objectives, and the possibility that it might use information to initiate litigation to challenge wrongful convictions. The federal museum appeared to have sided with the organization of forensic dentists that donated the records, an organization that has been overtly hostile to the Innocence Project’s work. The lawsuit challenges that decision.
The case remains ongoing in federal district court in Manhattan.
The clinic works to support the investigative work and policy advocacy of local non-profits and grassroots organizations. To this end, the clinic has hosted community-based trainings and workshops focused on New York’s open government laws, including the Freedom of Information Law and the Open Meetings Law.
In January 2019, the clinic conducted an open government workshop for the Partnership for Public Good and Open Buffalo Democracy Fellows.
In April 2019, clinic students conducted a workshop and training for a variety of local organizations and community activists as part of the Buffalo Commons.
During these workshops, the clinic provided attendees with materials and practical resources to enable organizations to use the open government laws. Clinic students provided brief advice on particular FOIL issues.
Everyone has the right to see how justice is being carried out in our courtrooms. Both the First Amendment and the common law protect every person’s right to attend court and to read documents filed in cases. Sometimes, however, courts improperly seal documents – or even entire cases – without properly considering the public’s right of access. As a result, important controversies and decisions may be shielded from public scrutiny.
The clinic is working with partner organizations to improve court secrecy practices by entrenching transparency protections in the rules of procedure that govern court proceedings on the ground.
The clinic submitted a successful proposal to the federal District Court for the Northern District of New York. As a result, that court overhauled its rules governing sealing in civil cases, effective January 1, 2018. That project was done in partnership the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
The clinic is expand on that success, working with the Knight First Amendment Institute to seek an amendment to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure in order to entrench and harmonize the procedures that litigants and judges must follow before deciding whether to issue secrecy orders and exclude the public.
National Lawyers Guild Buffalo Chapter v. Erie County Sheriff’s Office (Sup. Ct. Erie County)
The Erie County Sheriff’s Office has repeatedly concealed suicide attempts by prisoners in its custody, mislabeling such incidents as mere “inmate disturbances” or “manipulative gestures,” thereby avoiding its legal obligation to report to the New York State Commission of Correction. More than two dozen inmates have died in the Sheriff’s custody since 2006, many by their own hand.
The clinic represents the National Lawyers Guild Buffalo Chapter in a Freedom of Information lawsuit to force the Sheriff to produce incident reports that could reveal additional instances of concealed suicide attempts, as well as policies, internal emails, and other documents that shed light on how the Sheriff’s Office treats suicide attempts and whether it has evaded mandatory oversight.
Following more than a year of litigation, the trial judge has issued a ruling ordering disclosure of the vast majority of the requested information. The Sheriff’s Office has not yet determined whether it will comply or instead appeal.
In 2018, the City of Buffalo’s Common Council established a community Police Advisory Board with a mandate to focus on policing and police-community relations. The Board hears directly from the community, develops policy proposals, and advocates on the community’s behalf to the Common Council and police. The clinic’s director serves as a co-chair of the Police Advisory Board.
Students in the clinic support the work of the Police Advisory Board by drafting research and policy reports, testifying before the Common Council, and presenting policy research and proposals to the public at community forums open to the public. Student attorneys have also participated in discussions directly with Buffalo Police Department’s administration. The clinic’s work has focused extensively on the policies governing body-worn cameras, including concerns about public access to footage and, more broadly, ensuring that the cameras serve as a tool for public accountability. Clinic students are also engaged in policy research on other issues of significant concern to the community, including officer performance evaluations, community-based policing, and implicit bias trainings.
Privacy International v. Federal Bureau of Investigation (WDNY)
Law enforcement agencies throughout the federal government now have access to powerful and intrusive hacking tools that can facilitate surreptitious, often remote, access to people’s cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices. These hacking tools are increasingly available for purchase off-the-shelf by law enforcement agencies.
The clinic represents Privacy International and the American Civil Liberties Union in a significant Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that seeks to unearth basic information about how these tools are being used by seven federal law enforcement in the context of criminal, immigration, financial, and tax investigations. The lawsuit seeks to force the agencies to disclose information about the rules, protocols and legal interpretations that agencies may have adopted to govern these tools, as well as basic information about the procurement, capabilities, and oversight of these tools.
The case remains ongoing in federal district court in Buffalo.
Vietnam Veterans of America v. Department of Defense (WDNY)
The Department of Defense operates a website that allows open, anonymous access to sensitive information about millions of veterans and service members. Through the website, anyone can obtain Social Security Number/name matches, dates of prior service and future call-up to active duty, among other information. The clinic represents Tom Barden, a retired Air Force Master Sergeant, and the Vietnam Veterans of America in a federal lawsuit alleging violations of the Privacy Act and related laws. The lawsuit aims to force DoD to adopt proper security practices and to protect veterans against identity theft, frauds, and other abuses of their private data.
Following months of negotiations, the parties have reached a settlement-in-principle that would strictly limit use of the website to its sole legitimate use, which is to allow banks and similar institutions to verify whether a customer is an active-duty servicemember entitled to protection under the Servicemember Civil Relief Act.
Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media (U.S. Supreme Court)
The clinic wrote an amicus brief on behalf of a coalition of technology and civil rights organizations in a significant government transparency case pending in the U.S Supreme Court. The case concerns the extent to which the government may keep secret information provided by contractors, vendors, and other private companies. The brief focused on the use by government of extraordinarily powerful and increasingly pervasive technologies that are provided by private companies, including artificial intelligence systems, surveillance tools, and digital infrastructure. The brief urged the Court not to expand the scope of secrecy for such privately-sourced technology, which increasingly carry out core governmental functions.
The brief was filed in the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Food Marketing Institute v. Argus Leader Media, No. 18-481. The brief was written on behalf of the AI Now Institute, American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU Law School, and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
Hassoun v. Searls (WDNY)
The clinic represents a stateless Palestinian man who the government seeks to detain indefinitely—potentially for the rest of his life—in a U.S. immigration facility under a post-9/11 national security regulation. Our client has completed his criminal sentence and a Court has already continued detention in immigration custody is unlawful because there is no prospect of is removal. The government, however, seeks to continue to hold him imprisoned indefinitely on national security grounds. The regulation in question purports to grant the Secretary of Homeland security the sole, unreviewable discretion to decide whether a person should be held imprisoned on national security grounds. It does not provide our client with the ability to be heard before a judge or neutral decision-maker, it does not allow him to challenge any witnesses against him, nor does it even allow him to see the evidence against him.
The clinic, together with the Community Justice Clinic, the ACLU, and the NYCLU, is challenging the constitutionality of this scheme of preventive detention in a habeas corpus petition alleging violations of basic constitutional principles of Due Process.
Mar.26, 2019 – Testing novel power, Trump administration detains Palestinian after sentence ends, New York Times.
The military has used open-air burn pits to dispose of all manner of hazardous waste on bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, producing toxic clouds of thick, black smoke that envelope surrounding areas. Service members who worked and lived in the shadow of the burn pits are returning home with severe debilitating illnesses but are often denied treatment or disability benefits they have earned through their service. Civilians who live near U.S. bases are likewise getting sick.
The clinic represents Amnesty International USA in a series of Freedom of Information Act request to obtain basic information necessary to hold the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs accountable for this emerging crisis, which many describe as this generation’s Agent Orange.