Cornell First Amendment Hosts Digital Bootcamp

Watch the keynotes:

Fundamentals of the First Amendment: Speech, Press, and Assembly

The First Amendment to the US Constitution protects free speech, freedom of the press, and the freedom of assembly. (It also protects free exercise of religion and bars the establishment of religion, which will be the subject of a different presentation). Although the First Amendment allows “no law” infringing the rights it protects, that prohibition cannot be taken literally. While the US protects free expression to a greater extent than any other constitutional democracy, some limits are allowed. Case law deems some categories of speech (such as obscenity and so-called fighting words) unprotected, while even protected speech may be limited by content-neutral time, place, or manner restrictions. Meanwhile, despite warranting its own clause, case law gives no special protection to the institutional press. This introduction to the very large body of free expression case law provides a useful framework for analyzing classic as well as contemporary conflicts.

The Religion Clauses in the Age of the Pandemic

Professor Nelson Tebbe will first give an overview of current law under the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as under related religious freedom statutes such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. He will then apply these rules to current disputes arising under the COVID pandemic, including claims for religious exemptions from stay at home orders and the permissibility of PPP funding for houses of worship and clergy salaries.

The Freedom of Information Act in the Age of the Pandemic

The Freedom of Information Act is a statute used to gain access to information from government agencies that is not ordinarily accessible to the public. While an important law during the best of times—and one that has been used to shed light on “what the government is up to”—during the age of the pandemic it is all the more crucial. Using the First Amendment Clinic’s case with the New York Times that obtained millions of records of CDC data to expose racism in the pandemic, this talk will walk viewers through the basics of FOIA, and why from a public health perspective the statute is more important than ever. It will also discuss some of the limits of FOIA to obtain public information, as well as the limits of litigation to resolve fast-moving disputes for the nation’s Fourth Estate.

An Introduction to Defamation Law

This presentation provides a primer on the basics of defamation law. Since the Supreme Court’s seminal 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, courts and commentators have interpreted the First Amendment as providing expansive protections for speakers—particularly the press—so that debate on issues of public importance is “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” We’ll walk through the current doctrinal frameworks for evaluating defamation claims, discuss the competing values underlying these frameworks, and explore modern developments in defamation law—including the current threat to Sullivan itself. This presentation is meant to be interactive: using hypotheticals and examples from the Clinic’s cases, attendees will have the opportunity to apply newly-learned principles of defamation law to concrete examples in real time.


Cornell Law School Achieves Settlement Victory in Public Records Case

A public records lawsuit between the State of Vermont and a watchdog news site,, settled when the State agreed to disclose documents related to the nation’s largest EB-5 public corruption scandal.  The scandal involved an over $200 million Ponzi-like scheme at a regional center run by the State of Vermont as part of a federal scheme that allows foreign individuals to secure permanent legal resident visas in exchange for investments in development projects.

The lawsuit, Vermont Journalism Trust vs. State of Vermont, Docket No: 6-1-19 Wncv, concerned public records requests VTDigger had made under the Vermont Public Records Act for documents submitted during the same time period that the owner of one of the program’s development projects, the Jay Peak resort, was accused of defrauding foreign investors. Specifically, VTDigger believed the documents would reveal what Vermont and high-ranking politicians within the state knew about the Ponzi scheme, and when they knew it.

The state withheld the requested forms, claiming they were exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act because the forms were relevant to two distinct lawsuits related to the Ponzi scheme—one suit brought by the State of Vermont against the fraudsters and one brought by the foreign investors, many of whom had not received repayment nor Green Cards, against the state.

With the assistance of the Cornell Law School First Amendment Clinic, VTDigger filed a lawsuit against the state in January, seeking disclosure of the withheld documents.

On March 8, the parties announced a settlement in which the State agreed to turn over the requested forms and “additional Jay Peak records” the State had previous withheld from VTDigger.

The settlement agreement brings VTDigger one step closer to uncovering the truth behind the securities fraud scandal and providing transparency for the public. Law students Corina Gallardo, Rafa Agundez, and Fernanda Merouco contributed to the case, providing vital legal research and strategy.

Further information on the lawsuit, including the complaint, can be found here.