The Knight Institute’s internship program offers law students, grad students, and undergraduates the chance to work alongside the Institute’s attorneys on ground-breaking, digital-era First Amendment litigation, free-speech advocacy, and research.
Since launching our internship program in 2017, we have hosted nearly 90 interns and externs from universities including Columbia, Berkeley, Boston University, Harvard, New York University, Stanford, Virginia, and Yale.
Most spend their postings embedded within the Institute’s team of litigators, where they explore potential lawsuits, conduct legal research and analysis, contribute to litigation strategy, and draft factual and legal memoranda, affidavits, and briefs. Legal externs also take part in a weekly seminar led by one of the Institute’s attorneys; the course provides the students with a theoretical and doctrinal foundation for the work we do at the Institute.
“The interns are crucial to the Institute’s work,” said Litigation Director Alex Abdo. “They energize us with their optimism and bring new perspectives and insights to our conversations. In return, we hope to play at least a small part in preparing them to become the next generation of lawyers and advocates working in the public interest.”
Skills you can’t learn in the classroom
The Institute’s latest batch of 2020-21 interns wrapped up their work earlier this spring.
One, Hannah Gutenplan (Columbia Law School ‘21) spent the term writing a research memo on the “right to record,” to help inform the Institute’s thinking around the circumstances in which the First Amendment protects the recording of data. She also helped prepare materials for the Institute’s recent lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Reflecting on her internship, Gutenplan noted: “I learned how First Amendment lawyers make strategic decisions at every stage of a case.”
Another, Michael Kutz (Columbia Law ‘21), helped the Institute with its efforts to facilitate public-interest research of Facebook. “I learned so much,” said Kutz of his internship, adding that he gained “a better understanding of the community of individuals, organizations, and researchers that are working to ensure technology is developed in ways that aid rather than harm our democracy. … This is really helpful for me as I think of ways I can contribute to this effort throughout my legal career.”
“One of my favorite experiences at the Knight Institute has been the opportunity to observe how attorneys interact with clients and opposing counsel. This is exactly the type of practical skill set that you can't learn in the law school classroom.”
Another spring Columbia Law student, Samuel Truesdell, researched and wrote a memorandum on whether a state could constitutionally impose a tax on surveillant advertising. He noted that during the course of this project, he learned how different digital platforms operate in general and target advertising in particular, while also getting the opportunity to think creatively about how litigants could draw on existing case law to make arguments about what qualifies as First Amendment speech.
“One of my favorite experiences at the Knight Institute,” said Truesdell, “has been the opportunity to observe how attorneys interact with clients and opposing counsel. This is exactly the type of practical skill set that you can’t learn in the law school classroom.”
Among other spring semester legal interns were Kimberly Chen, who researched case law on First Amendment retaliation claims as part of a project to understand how recent Supreme Court decisions affect the analysis of these claims; David Eli, who wrote memos on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA); and Vidhi Gupta, who researched the role and potential legal liability of spyware manufacturers in the targeting of political dissidents like Jamal Khashoggi.
FACTOID: One of the Institute’s first interns in spring 2017, Ramya Krishnan, became our first legal fellow in summer 2017 and was then appointed staff attorney in summer 2018.
Interns work on Section 230, facial recognition, Trump suit
Knight Institute spring interns also included Nathaniel Low, a Columbia School of International and Public Affairs masters’ candidate who researched and wrote about reform proposals for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, while also editing essays for the Institute’s Data & Democracy essay series.
“I have learned a lot about the litigation process,” said Low. “From conception to argument, to the ramifications of court opinions, it's been an honor to listen to the Knight Institute’s incredibly accomplished staff discuss the emerging legal issues of the digital age. Engaging in that process has reaffirmed my desire to become a lawyer and work at the intersection of technology and national security.”
Columbia undergrad Hana Mangat also worked on facial recognition research for the litigation team this spring, and helped review and publish two Data & Democracy essays. For Mangat, “One of my favorite learning experiences was through the weekly litigation meetings. I had no idea how much creativity legal strategy required.” She added: “My experience at the Knight Institute made me realize that I want to go to law school!”
The Knight Institute also hosted a team of interns in fall 2020, including Columbia Law School students Tamuz Avivi, who worked on interviewing documentary filmmakers and conducted research related to the Honest Ads Act, and Tarek Roshdy, who assisted with memos on FARA and a Knight Institute lawsuit on behalf of the National Association of Immigration Judges. Other fall interns included Columbia’s Alexis Banks, Arthur Halliday, Megan Hirsh, and Stacy Okoro.
Previously, summer 2020 legal interns included Mariam Zein-el-Abdin of Fordham University, and Jessica Hui. Hui graduates from Harvard Law later this month; she used her internship to research military recruiting on the Twitch and Discord platforms, as well as to prepare a memo related to the Institute’s lawsuit against former President Trump for blocking critics on Twitter.
New York University Law School students Gabriela Schneider, Rupali Srivastava, and Jacob Apkon also served as summer 2020 interns.
Srivastava drafted a memo related to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit involving the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and took part in a moot court in preparation for a FOIA hearing, which she was able to attend. She also assisted in drafting and preparing filings for a new lawsuit against former President Trump for his continued blocking of critics on Twitter.
Srivastava plans to spend her 2L summer at the law firm Jenner & Block, where she hopes to continue working with the Knight Institute on pro bono matters.
Connection to 2020 social justice movement
The 2020 social justice movement had a particular impact on two summer 2020 interns and their work at the Institute. NYU’s Apkon said of his experience, “While the mass protests for racial justice were ongoing, the interns were able to research ways in which the Knight Institute could be involved in the movement. In addition, I was able to research the relationship between voting rights and the First Amendment.”
Justine Morris, who graduates from Boston University Law School this spring, also worked on speech issues associated with last summer’s protests—particularly relating to badgeless federal officers.
Finally, Columbia Law student Yardena Katz captured something of the excitement of legal internships in describing her summer 2020 research on precedents to support the Institute’s legal theory in challenging the federal system of prepublication review.
“I surprised myself when I found a case supporting a minute point in need of a citation in an entirely different case I was staffed on—the Knight Institute’s challenge to restraints on immigration judges’ speech,” Katz recalled. “Seeing that cite in our opening brief in the Fourth Circuit was technically a small thing, but it really captured the spirit of my time at the Knight Institute: learning to contribute to complex litigation with agility and detail-orientedness as part of a team.”
Concluded Katz: “The attorneys at the Institute set a brilliant example for how to relentlessly, strategically, and collaboratively lawyer, while empowering me to aspire to do the same.”
A. Adam Glenn is a writer/editor at the Knight Institute.