MFIA Recognized for Work on NSL Case

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic was recognized as a finalist for the second annual Columbia University Global Freedom of Expression Prize in the Excellence in Legal Service category for its representation of the plaintiff in Merrill v. Holder. The Merrill case was the first time anyone had successfully defeated a PATRIOT Act gag order.

“This was an unexpected honor, and it attests to the truly important, path breaking work that we are all doing here in the clinic,” said Jonathan Manes ’08, a lecturer in law and Yale Law School who supervises the clinic and played a key role in this case.

In November, the Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) won an 11-year legal battle after a gag order forbidding their client from speaking about a National Security Letter (NSL) he received from the FBI was lifted.

The client, Nicholas Merrill, was served with an NSL in 2004 demanding that he turn over records about a customer of the Internet company he then owned, Calyx Internet Access.

When the gag order was lifted, Merrill was free to tell the public how the FBI has construed its authority to issue National Security Letters (NSLs) to permit collection of vast amounts of private information on U.S. citizens without a search warrant or any showing of probable cause, according to the clinic.

The Merrill case marked the first time an NSL gag order has been lifted in full since the PATRIOT Act vastly expanded the scope of the FBI’s NSL authority in 2001. Those changes to the PATRIOT Act allow the FBI to compel disclosure of information from online companies and forbid recipients from disclosing they have received an NSL, according to the clinic. The FBI has refused to detail publicly the kinds of private data it believes it can obtain with an NSL. Until the clinic secured a victory in the case, Merrill was subject to a gag order forbidding him from sharing this information with the public. Read the full story on the case here.

The successful outcome of the case came after years of work from clinic faculty directors and students, including co-directors David Schulz ’78 and Jack Balkin, and the outstanding work of several generations of Yale Law School students—Anjali Motgi ’14, Jacob Victor ’14, Lulu Pantin ’16, Ben Graham ’15, Amanda Lynch ’16, Matthew Halgren ’15, Nicholas Handler ’15, Rebecca Wexler ’16 and John Ehrett ’17. 

The Columbia Global Freedom of Expression and Information Initiative seeks to connect international experts and activists with the University’s faculty and students to document the development of international norms and institutions that protect the free flow of information and expression.

The Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic (MFIA) is a law school clinic dedicated to increasing government transparency, defending the essential work of news gatherers, and protecting freedom of expression through impact litigation, direct legal services, and policy work. The clinic is a program of the Abrams Institute for Freedom of Expression and the Information Society Project.