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Law clinic advocates access to information, teaches the power to ‘do good’


Published August 14, 2017 This content is archived.

headshot of Jonathan Manes.
“Students don’t just receive training in bread-and-butter lawyering skills. They also learn the power they have as lawyers to do good in the world. ”
Jonathan Manes, clinical assistant professor
Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic

When the Vietnam Veterans of America filed a federal lawsuit to end what it saw as the federal government’s willingness to expose private details about millions of veterans, the organization turned for legal muscle to the UB School of Law’s Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic.

And when the New York Civil Liberties Union and Knight First Amendment Institute acted to improve transparency in court proceedings, they also turned to that same Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic. This project has garnered national attention: Volokh Conspiracy, The Washington Post’s influential law blog, published an opinion piece on the issue written by three students affiliated with the UB clinic.

The Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic is on the national legal map. Started last fall by Jonathan Manes, clinical assistant professor of law, the clinic has two distinct institutional aims, along with one underlying value tying everything together.

“The clinic has a dual mission,” says Manes, who before coming to UB was the Abrams Clinical Fellow at Yale Law School. At Yale, he co-taught the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, representing journalists and non-profits in transparency and free speech lawsuits on subjects that include NSA and FBI surveillance, police practices and prison conditions.

The first part of the mission, he says, is “to obtain access to information on behalf of journalists, non-profits and advocacy organizations who do serious investigative work to hold governments accountable. And the second is to defend an individual’s civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech and privacy rights.”

Behind the nuts and bolts of the clinical work lies a very simple principle, according to Manes.

“Students don’t just receive training in bread-and-butter lawyering skills,” Manes says. “They also learn the power they have as lawyers to do good in the world.”

Since the clinic began less than a year ago, about 10 students have taken part so far. Students may continue in the clinic for multiple semesters so they can follow their cases through the legal system. Half of last semester’s clinic students will return this fall for another semester.

Manes’ Civil Liberties clinic has advocated on behalf of some heavy-hitters. While many of the clients are not yet public, Manes cited several high-profile examples:

  • The clinic recently filed a major data-privacy lawsuit against the Department of Defense on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans of America and its members. That case was filed in federal district court in Buffalo. “Students developed that case over the last two semesters,” Manes says. “One of our summer legal interns, Thora Knight, participated in the press conference that we held with our clients last week.”
  • The clinic is representing the National Lawyers Guild’s Buffalo Chapter, which is trying to obtain information from the Erie County Holding Center about how it handles suicide attempts by inmates in custody.   

“The clinic is likely to expand its Freedom of Information work, including bringing lawsuits in federal or state court to enforce such requests, as appropriate.” Manes says. “There is tremendous need for this kind of legal support among independent journalists, non-profit organizations and others who are engaging in serious investigative work but find themselves stymied by state and federal agencies that refuse to provide information.”

  • The UB clinic partnered with the New York Civil Liberties Union and the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University with an aim to increase judicial transparency and limit the circumstances in which the public is excluded from court proceedings or from access to court filings. Manes’ students wrote the op-ed on this case that was cited at length in The Washington Post.

“We developed a model rule to govern sealing court records and have already asked one federal district court to adopt it,” Manes says. “We are exploring options to expand the scope of this work to other jurisdictions. We may also engage in targeted litigation to unseal court records in particular cases.”

Manes says the UB clinic is one of the first in the nation to focus on government transparency and free speech. He hopes to make UB a leader of a coordinated national network of these transparency clinics.

“The goal of the burgeoning network is to promote and protect free speech, the press and the flow of information for a more informed and engaged citizenry,” Manes says. “In more concrete terms, we hope to provide legal muscle to independent journalists, non-profits and others who are filling the gap in our democracy that has been left behind by the decline of traditional newspapers and other news outlets.”

Manes says the need for this kind of legal support is particularly acute at the state and local level, “where the resources available for serious investigative journalism have been dwindling.”

“The clinic here at UB is a national leader in the effort to engage the energy of law students to serve the public interest in this way,” he says. “My hope is that the structure and teaching materials that we are developing in the clinic here at UB will become a model for clinics elsewhere.”