Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Stand Up for Academic Freedom

By Marc Korman.

The Maryland General Assembly has a bad habit of stepping all over academic freedom and interfering in the University of Maryland’s mission to educate its students during budget season. Last year’s controversy involved what films could be screened on College Park’s campus. This year’s controversy involves the clinics at the University’s law school.

The General Assembly is up in arms because of the law school’s Environmental Law Clinic. Clinics allow law students, under close supervision, to do actual legal work for clients. In many cases those being represented cannot get legal counsel elsewhere. In this case, the Environmental Law Clinic has brought suit against Perdue and one of its suppliers, an Eastern Shore chicken farmer, for illegal discharge of pollutants into waterways that feed the Chesapeake Bay. The farmer’s legislators have rallied to his defense, but instead of proving his innocence they have tried to bully his accusers with budget amendments.

The State Senate version of the budget includes a provision withholding $500,000 from the University until the law school provides:

1. A report describing each legal case the Environmental Law Clinic participated in during the past two years including the client represented, expenditures for the case, and the source of the funds used.

2. A report on law school clinics operated at public higher education institutions in other states including the criteria they use in selecting cases.

This is actually considered a compromise, authored by Senator Brian Frosh, when it became apparent a majority of Senators could not be found to stand up for academic freedom and strike the provision entirely.

The House version of the budget, not yet voted on by the full chamber, apparently restricts $750,000 in funds pending a report on all of the information the Senate requires plus each case the other clinics at the law school are working on.

It is hard to know where to begin with why the proposed funding restriction is troubling. Here are a few reasons:

1. It harms the law school’s clinic program. Named after alumni and U.S. Senator Ben Cardin, the program is unusual among law schools in that every student must take a clinic. At most schools, clinics are difficult to get into and highly competitive. The University of Maryland guarantees that every student will have clinical experience.

2. The clinics all operate differently, so a report on how law school clinics operate is not particularly useful. For example, in the Criminal Defense Clinic I participated in, I was paired with a federal public defender who assigned me cases. Is the General Assembly intending to vet those cases? I am confident the cases I worked on would not win any political popularity contests, but those defendants needed a lawyer (or law student in my case) regardless.

3. What message does this send to law students? It is already a challenge to get debt saddled students to choose careers in public service or public interest law over corporate firms. Now, their elected politicians are cracking down on those kinds of efforts?

4. Am I crazy or does the General Assembly not spend a lot of time lamenting the state of the Chesapeake Bay? We all know that discharge into the bay, whether from run-off or dumping, is a big problem for the Bay’s health. Why does the General Assembly want to stop efforts to use the legal system to heal the bay?

5. But the biggest issue is the academic freedom issues raised by this requirement. What happens when a University of Maryland Professor writes a book the General Assembly does not approve of? Will they withhold funds until the school issues reports to the legislature’s satisfaction? What if next time they decide to withhold funds until the professor is dismissed? Where exactly does the General Assembly draw the line?

The issue is fast moving, but I believe there will be a vote to strike the amendment from the budget in the House of Delegates as soon as tomorrow (Thursday, April 1st). Please encourage your legislators to stand up and do the right thing to support academic freedom, the University of Maryland School of Law, its clinic program, and its students.

Disclaimer: I am a student at the University of Maryland School of Law and participated in the Criminal Defense clinic in 2009. I know some students in the Environmental Law Clinic at the heart of the current debate.