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Duke to open First Amendment clinic, offer free counsel

The Duke University Chapel on Duke’s West Campus, as photographed in 2017, serves as a symbol of the university.

The Duke University Chapel on Duke’s West Campus, as photographed in 2017, serves as a symbol of the university.

Duke Law School announced Feb. 7 it will open a First Amendment Clinic to provide free legal representation to people who feel their rights have been violated.

The clinic, set to launch in August, will allow law students to work directly with clients. The clinic will be funded by the Stanton Foundation, which was founded in honor of former CBS reporter Frank Stanton and focuses on freedom of expression as one of its core issues.

Jefferson Powell, a professor at Duke Law School who will be leading the clinic, said the foundation approached the school about opening the clinic. He said the foundation and Duke University shared the same values in wanting to defend freedom of speech while teaching students.

Powell said the foundation was attracted to Duke because of its commitment to providing students with professional experience at the university, and Duke is excited because supporting the First Amendment is part of its role in the public sphere.

The clinic will essentially practice as a law office, providing advice and counsel for people with First Amendment complaints. Powell said he anticipates the clinic will be asked to comment publicly on issues regarding freedom of speech, and he hopes the clinic will earn a reputation as an important public voice.

Powell said opening this clinic is important because it speaks to a fundamental American value facing an important part in its history. He referenced arguments over who should be allowed to speak. 

“The problem with saying you’re in favor of freedom of speech except for people saying things that aren’t ‘useful’ or ‘good’ is that everyone can play that game,” Powell said.

He cautioned against allowing people in power to make judgments on what type of speech is OK, and he hopes the First Amendment Law Clinic at Duke will be used by people with differing political views.

“Freedom of speech means it’s protected for everybody,” Powell said.

Sometimes people barring others from speaking have valid concerns over the effects of that speech, he said, but the First Amendment protects people who are disliked for any reason.

“They’re tempted because they really are concerned about the damaging effects of the speech of people they find threatening,” he said. “But the First Amendment can’t work that way.”

Although the Duke clinic is more targeted in its selection of cases, Elizabeth Haddix, an attorney at the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, said the center was encouraged to hear that Duke is expanding its public interest litigation.

The need for adequate legal representation in North Carolina is even greater now than before, especially with recent protests about Confederate monuments, animal rights and environmental justice, she said.

Haddix and her colleague Mark Dorosin started the Chambers Center after they were fired from the UNC Center for Civil Rights last fall. The center continues the advocacy of the Center for Civil Rights since it was banned from pursuing litigation by the UNC-system Board of Governors.

The Chambers Center has a relationship with Duke Law clinics because they work together on several issues, but the center did not know about Duke’s intention to open a First Amendment clinic, Haddix said.

Even though Duke Law School is expanding its involvement in social justice, it is unlikely the Board of Governors will reconsider allowing the UNC Center for Civil Rights to litigate again, Haddix said.

“I think the Board of Governors was very clear that they do not want UNC associated with representing people whose civil rights have been violated."


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Anna Pogarcic

Anna Pogarcic is the editor-in-chief of The Daily Tar Heel. She is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill studying journalism and history major. 

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