Today, a committee of the Louisiana Senate will hold hearings on a bill designed to undermine the power of law school clinics. The proposal would prohibit all law school clinics in Louisiana from suing government agencies, seeking damages from private individuals and entities, and raising constitutional claims at all. Any university that does not comply would lose all state funding - which turns out to be a fair amount of money, even for private schools like Tulane.
The bill is the only the most recent volley in the longstanding war between Tulane's environmental clinic and Louisiana's chemical and oil industries. Several years ago, after the clinic won a lawsuit against local plastics maker Shintech, advocates for industry successfully pressed the state Supreme Court to adopt remarkably restrictive limits on student law clinics. (Note: the former director of the Tulane clinic, Bob Kuehn, was my colleague for several years at the University of Alabama. He is now at Washington University in St. Louis.)
Louisiana is hardly alone. A few years back, supporters of an expressway project in Pittsburgh attempted to pressure the law school to stop its environmental clinic from advocating for opponents of the plan. And only a few months ago, Maryland legislators tried to strip the University of Maryland enviromental clinic of funding when the clinic sued local sacred cow Perdue Farms.
On one hand, attacks on state schools are at least understandable. Legislators view universities as state agencies and law clinics as state operated law firms. You can see why legislators would want to keep the state's counsel under tight control. Of course, law students, law professors, and law schools don't see things this way. In these tough times, it also becomes easy for legislators to take on a shopper's mentality: if you want our money, you'd better give us the product we want. The Louisiana story is a bit more nakedly political because legislators are pressuring both public and private schools to behave in certain ways - both by directly limiting the ability of students to practice and by conditioning state money on compliance. Of course, the federal government engages in this sort of extortion persuasion as well - think Elena Kagan and the whole military recruiting issue.
Academics are rightly worried. There are potential free speech issues here. There are academic freedom concerns. Even if clinics are a different kind of course, they are still classes constructed by professors - and regulation of clinics will take us down a slippery slope of governmental intervention in the curriculum. All faculty have a stake in this debate.
But we can't hide from the fact that clinics are more than brainstorming sessions. They are active learning projects designed, in many cases, to empower marginalized citizens. I think that's a highly desirable political objective, but it is a political objective. And the fact that the clinics are using existing law as leverage (and teaching students along the way) does not turn it apolitical.
In the end, this is more than just a battle for academic freedom. It's a political battle to empower poor folks. Admitting this fact may not make for good sound bites - and thus may be a lousy organizing strategy - but it's true. And it's a battle well worth fighting.