Journalists often face a reoccurring issue: People in power don’t always like to be held accountable for their actions, so they resist inquiries by the watchdogs called to do just that.
One solution: strategic legal intervention by the law school’s Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic.
The Clinic, directed by Professor Heather Abraham, has built a record of effective representation for local and national journalists seeking essential information. Its work does double duty—ensuring access to justice for its clients and training law students in the skills they’ll need in practice.
“It’s an access to justice issue to make sure we have a responsive government,” says Abraham, who previously served as a supervising attorney for the Civil Rights Clinic at the Georgetown University Law Center. “We’ve become a go-to resource for investigative journalists in Buffalo. Our goal is to sustain that work to facilitate a more informed electorate and a more informed citizenry.”
Toward that end, clinic students have invoked the courts to eliminate barriers to access on a number of fronts:
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Many journalists work for organizations that lack the legal firepower to pursue such cases on their own. “The Clinic has proven to be very helpful in prying public records loose from stonewalling bureaucrats,” says Jim Heaney, editor and executive director of Investigative Post, a nonprofit Buffalo-based news organization. “Governments often try to wait out news organizations, but having the Clinic as an advocate for us sends a message that we mean business.”
In addition to consulting with journalists on strategies to access information, the Clinic advocates for greater transparency in government. As one example, it has formally submitted a proposed Federal Rule of Civil Procedure to standardize the process for sealing court records across all 94 federal districts. Students also provide free trainings to journalists and others on transparency laws, including New York State’s Freedom of Information Law.
That law—the go-to justification for New York journalists seeking government information—can be strengthened, and that too is part of the Clinic’s portfolio.
“We advocate for improvements in the law through impact litigation,” says the Clinic’s Assistant Director Michael Higgins. “We select cases that will improve the law by expanding or preserving access to government documents. For example, we represented the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 26 media organizations to ensure access to police disciplinary records after police unions sought to roll back new legislation. We also represent Reinvent Albany and the New York Coalition for Open Government to urge an appellate court to require government agencies to release their training documents and prevent an overuse of the attorney-client privilege.
“In our litigation, we reset the power imbalance between recalcitrant government agencies and journalists who seek to hold them accountable.”
And at the core of the Clinic’s work, Abraham says, is a commitment to racial equity. “It’s one thing to have transparency for transparency’s sake,” she says, “but we apply a racial justice lens to our transparency work. We’re asking questions like why police treat some people differently than others. These are all critical access to justice issues.”