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Thursday, February 4, 2010

Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum Looks to Increase Government Transparency and Support the Public’s Right to Know

Yale Law School has announced the launch of the Media Freedom and Information Access Practicum (MFIA). The Practicum, an initiative of the Information Society Project and the Knight Law & Media Program, is a team of student practitioners dedicated to increasing government transparency and supporting both traditional and emerging forms of newsgathering through impact litigation and policy work.

“This imaginative program is in the best legal tradition of pro bono public—for the public good,” said Linda Greenhouse ’78 MSL, Knight Distinguished Journalist-in-Residence and Joseph Goldstein Lecturer in Law. “These Yale Law students are picking up the fight against government secrecy, not for the benefit of the financially strapped media, but for our common stake in an accountable government and a healthy democracy.”

With mainstream news organizations facing economic pressures and limited in their ability to take on information access litigation, MFIA’s mission is twofold: to support a robust investigative role for news organizations and to preserve the public’s right of access to information, thereby ensuring a well-informed public sphere.

“Nurturing a healthy public sphere is now more important than ever,” noted Yale Law School Dean Robert Post ’77, a First Amendment scholar. “Institutional media that in the past have supported the creation of public opinion, so necessary in a constitutional democracy, are in a state of dire economic and technological turmoil. The MFIA will be well situated to bring constitutional values to bear in envisioning legal solutions to changing patterns of communication. The MFIA will understand how constitutionally to integrate old and new media.”

Co-founded by four Yale Law School students, Patrick Kabat ’10, Margot Kaminski ’10, Nabiha Syed ’10, and Adrienna Wong ’10, MFIA operates under the supervision of Information Society Project Director Jack Balkin and veteran media lawyers David Schulz of Levine, Sullivan, Koch, and Schulz, and Daniel Klau of Pepe & Hazard. Thus far, MFIA’s docket has included:

  • taking on a pro se journalist’s appeal from a court order denying access to court records in a corporate whistleblower case;
  • pursuing Freedom of Information Act requests and appeals on behalf of The New York Times;
  • assisting in an appeal to the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission;
  • conducting policy research for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on First Amendment rights online;
  • and coordinating federal and state Freedom of Information Act requests regarding fusion centers—federally-funded state and local intelligence-mining programs that have raised important questions about the balancing of privacy, free speech, and national security concerns.

MFIA also works on a variety of non-litigation matters, including drafting policy papers, inviting high-profile speakers to highlight emerging issues, and organizing a highly attended Freedom of Information Boot Camp for FOIA practitioners.

“Groups like EFF receive many more requests for help than we can possibly handle,” said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn. “More and more of them come from bloggers and others in new media. The Yale Practicum will give us much needed assistance from some of the smartest law students in the country to help ensure that the public knows what its government is up to.”