“Were it left to me to decide,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
It’s a sentiment that journalists and investigators of all stripes hold as a rallying cry for the First Amendment and the eternal need for a watchdog that can speak truth to power.
But changing economic times have left traditional media short on financial resources and scrambling to survive. Often labor-intensive investigative reporting gets left behind.
That’s a concern that the law school’s Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic is seeking to address with the hiring of Michael Higgins as a staff attorney and clinical teaching fellow in the areas of government accountability and freedom of the press. His hiring was made possible by a grant from a national Legal Clinic Fund that supports work to advocate for free expression.
“Mike comes to us with exactly the right experience and expertise, and is poised to do excellent work for the clinic’s clients, and to provide top-notch teaching for our student attorneys” says Vice Dean and Professor Kim Diana Connolly, director of clinical legal education and interim director of the Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic.
The Clinic was created in 2016 by former Assistant Clinical Professor Jonathan Manes, who left Buffalo earlier this month to join Northwestern Pritzker School of Law's Bluhm Legal Clinic. The process of hiring a new professor to direct the clinic is underway. The new director is expected to be in place this fall.
Higgins, who comes to UB School of Law from the Social Security Administration in Buffalo, will co-direct the Civil Liberties & Transparency Clinic and spearhead a new project to provide legal services to local journalists, newsrooms and nonprofits that do investigative work. That could include litigation under Freedom of Information laws, court access laws and other transparency laws; defending defamation lawsuits; training investigators on transparency and press freedom issues; and reviewing investigative reports before publication.
He hopes this will encourage news organizations and nonprofits to do difficult investigative work, knowing that the clinic will have their back legally.
“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” says Higgins, a cum laude 2011 graduate of Brooklyn Law School. “When you’re in a newsroom, you do the work that you have support to do. If you have the support to stop the government from stonewalling you to get information you need, you’re going to want to do that.
“There’s a huge need for this kind of support,” he says. “With the decline in local journalism, supportive services like legal work are often pushed to the outside. When your budget line shrinks, you don’t have an in-house lawyer. So we want to address that and improve opportunities for local journalists to do investigative work, and improve the information they’re putting out there.”
In addition to newspapers and electronic media, Higgins says clients of the project could also include nonprofit organizations. He cites as an example the National Lawyers Guild, which is investigating conditions at the Erie County Holding Center. Nonprofits, he says, may pursue investigations in order to support bringing litigation that could redress injustices, or they may produce white papers that bring media attention to an issue. “We want to support people who are trying to hold the government accountable,” Higgins says.
And, of course, the clinic’s work is a teaching tool for UB School of Law students who are learning the skills of lawyering in this area. It’s a structure similar to the Disability and Civil Rights Legal Clinic at Brooklyn Law School, where Higgins taught for approximately one and a half years.
“We served adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities to support their personal autonomy and self-direction,” he says. That included helping clients avoid guardianship so they could make their own life choices; fighting discrimination in the provision of services to clients; and advocating issues including access to education and parental rights.
UB School of Law students will benefit from learning the same sorts of skills: interviewing clients, arguing in court, drafting motions. “As a student,” Higgins says, “you have the opportunity to learn in the context of real-life cases. You have real clients and you’re making a real impact. It can be much more than an internship experience or an experience outside the law school – students have the opportunity for supervision, for reflection and for growth.
“And one of the great things about this clinic is that it’s malleable to the students’ interests. We can assign projects that support causes they believe in and give them opportunities to develop their professional networks. We plan to have a diverse docket of underlying subject matter that will be appealing to the different topics that students are passionate about.”