Powell to lead new First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law

February 7, 2018Duke Law News

Professor H. Jefferson Powell AM ’77 PhD ’91

A new First Amendment Clinic at Duke Law School will enable students to work directly with clients who claim an infringement of their right to free speech under the First Amendment.

The clinic, which will launch in August, will be led by Professor H. Jefferson Powell AM ’77 PhD ’91, a distinguished constitutional law scholar who has twice served as a lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice. The Stanton Foundation will provide funding for the clinic, including hiring a talented lawyer with a background in constitutional law litigation to serve as a teaching fellow and supervising attorney and provide day-to-day oversight of cases and students.

“The First Amendment is foundational to the rule of law in our democracy and in our University, so it is fitting that our students will now have the opportunity to defend these values while learning important litigation skills,” said David F. Levi, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of the School of Law. “We are grateful to the Stanton Foundation for its vision and support and to Professor Powell for taking a leadership role. Having one of our most talented teachers and scholars lead an important new clinic is a great example of our integrated model of legal education.”

Said Powell: “There’s nothing I enjoy more than working with students to help them develop the professional and intellectual skills that will enable them to become great lawyers. I also deeply agree with Justice Holmes’s belief that nothing in our Constitution more imperatively calls for attachment than freedom of speech and thought. To be involved in promoting awareness of, and the living out of, that constitutional commitment is humbling, exciting, and a challenge.”

Powell has taught at Duke Law since 1989 and received Duke University’s Scholar/Teacher Award in 2002. In addition to the first-year Constitutional Law course, his courses include Dignitary Torts and Philosophy for Constitutional Lawyers. His prolific scholarship has focused on the role of the Constitution in executive, legislative, and judicial decision-making, and he is the co-author, with Melvin G. Shimm Professor Emeritus of Law David L. Lange, of No Law: Intellectual Property in the Image of an Absolute First Amendment (2009), which argued for a robust defense of free speech in an age of excessive application of copyright.

Powell has taken two leaves of absence to serve in the federal government. From 2011 to 2012, he was deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the president, attorney general, and other executive branch officers. From 1993 to 2000, he held a variety of roles at the Justice Department, including principal deputy solicitor general. He has briefed and argued cases in both federal and state courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, and served as special counsel to the attorney general of North Carolina in the early 1990s.

The clinic, which will serve both individuals and organizations that cannot afford legal representation, will take cases with First Amendment claims at their core. Powell said these could include defending against libel or slander actions that threaten freedom of expression or advocating for the right to speak at a public university.

While it will aim to have a national impact, the clinic’s primary focus will be on cases in the Southeast. In addition to representing clients in litigation matters, students in the clinic will provide advice to journalists and others with free expression concerns.

“Giving students the chance to work on an essential public problem is core to all of our clinics, so to launch a First Amendment Clinic at this time is really exciting,” said Andrew Foster, clinical professor of law and director of experiential education and clinical programs. “The role of the press in creating an informed public is essential to democracy and it’s under threat in a way that has probably never been the case — for financial reasons, political reasons, and cultural reasons. The Law School will have the chance to bring the talents, energy, and expertise of faculty and students to bear on addressing that problem.”

The First Amendment Clinic will be Duke Law’s twelfth clinical program. The Duke Legal Clinics operate collectively as a public interest law firm with a teaching mission. Students work with real clients under the supervision of clinical professors who are also licensed attorneys.

The Stanton Foundation was created by broadcasting pioneer Frank Stanton. Its grant-making areas include classic and 21st-century First Amendment issues and the larger challenge of creating a better-informed citizenry.