The School of Law at Washington University in St. Louis has launched a new First Amendment Clinic, aimed at allowing students to gain experience by providing legal assistance to organizations, students, journalists and citizens.
“The clinic has two major goals,” said Lisa Hoppenjans, assistant professor of practice and director of the clinic. “To defend and advance freedom of speech, press and assembly by providing pro bono legal services to individuals and organizations in matters raising First Amendment issues; and to educate law students to become leaders on First Amendment issues through real-world practice experience.”
The clinic is believed to be the first in Missouri to focus on the First Amendment. It is funded by a grant from the Stanton Foundation.
It will include six students in the fall semester and eight in the spring.
Clients will include media organizations, journalists, students and other individuals with First Amendment claims, and the focus will be on local and regional matters, Hoppenjans said.
“The matters we may handle could include, for example, a motion to unseal court records for a news organization or bringing claim on behalf of an individual who was excluded from a government meeting for criticizing local officials,” she said.
One of the advantages of having the clinic at the university is that “the law school has several outstanding First Amendment scholars whose courses have really sparked a deeper interest in First Amendment law among a number of students,” Hoppenjans said. “Those students will now have the opportunity to take the passion and knowledge developed through their coursework and apply it to real cases. And even though most of the clinic’s students may not end up practicing First Amendment law, the skills that they learn will be transferable to all kinds of litigation.”
Protecting free speech and vigorous public debate is foundational to our democracy, Hoppenjans said.
“But over the last few years, both nationally and here in St. Louis, we’ve seen government actors try to exclude, silence or punish individuals for exercising their First Amendment rights. The clinic will give students the opportunity defend critically important rights at a challenging time.”