Jason Mazzone


CHAMPAIGN — The search is underway for the leader of the University of Illinois College of Law’s upcoming First Amendment clinic.

Back by a “generous gift” from the Stanton Foundation, a private organization created by former CBS News president Frank Stanton, the UI College of Law plans to enroll its first cohort of student clinicians in fall 2023.

Student clinicians will take on real First Amendment cases, mainly from the Midwest, focusing on the freedom of speech, press and assembly provisions of the amendment.

Like other UI clinics, students will handle all aspects of the case — identifying clients, filing initial complaints, and going to trial if necessary — under supervision of an experienced attorney.

UI law Professor Jason Mazzone, who’s leading the search for the clinic’s director, said the college hopes to hire for the position by spring 2023, so “when students return to campus this time next year they’re ready to hit the ground running.”

“The same way a medical student gets to see patients, the clinical experience allows our students to have a client and represent their interests,” Mazzone said. “You only really learn about the law in the sort of way you need to know it when you have to represent somebody.”

Student speech has become a hot-button First Amendment issue in recent times, Mazzone said. Cases over whether a school’s punishment for student speech violated the First Amendment usually begin with where the student’s speech occurred — on campus or off campus.

“That line becomes really blurred in the internet age, where things that you say off campus are very often directed to the campus or the people on campus, and courts are really grappling with how to make sense of the traditional distinction in the pre-Internet years,” Mazzone said.

Other bread-and-butter areas for First Amendment cases: government employees or applicants who claim they’ve been sanctioned, fired or not promoted based on something they said, or businesses that have been told to carry government messages, Mazzone said. Questions of press freedom, like news sites that face lawsuits for libel or causing emotional distress, also fall within the clinic’s scope.

“The good thing about the First Amendment is I think it’s neither a Democratic- or Republican-oriented amendment, it’s one that serves the interest of everybody regardless of their political views,” Mazzone said. “We can imagine and we hope there will be cases that span the political spectrum.”

Mazzone himself teaches classes on the subject. Law Dean Vik Amar is considered a leading scholar in the First Amendment space.

The Stanton Foundation has funded a number of campus First Amendment clinics in recent years, at Stanford, Tulane, Case Western and Vanderbilt universities, to name a few.

“In the same way the First Amendment is a cornerstone of democracy, at a public university it’s really central to a lot of what we do,” Mazzone said.

Ethan Simmons is a reporter at The News-Gazette covering the University of Illinois. His email is esimmons@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@ethancsimmons).

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