Mystery Around SMU’s ‘First Amendment Center’

Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law
Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law | Image by National Jurist

Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) “First Amendment Clinic” is one of eleven “specialized” projects housed within the Dedman School of Law where students, under the supervision of allegedly experienced clinic directors, serve as “advocates on behalf of the community.”

Beginning operations in Fall 2020, due to a gift from the Stanton Foundation, the First Amendment Clinic specifically focuses its services on “issues including free speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly and petition.”

The Stanton Foundation was created by longtime CBS president Frank Stanton in 2009. According to the foundation’s website, its primary focus is on “protection of First Amendment rights,” international and nuclear security, and canine welfare.

But exactly for whom the First Amendment Clinic at SMU is utilizing these financial resources, as well as the human and intellectual capital of Dedman law students, is shrouded in secrecy.

The Clinic’s webpage does not list past or active cases, and requests for this information by The Dallas Express have been met with silence by the First Amendment Clinic, the Dedman School of Law, and SMU itself.

As of the writing of this article, an official request under federal and state public information laws has been submitted for the cases in which the Clinic has been involved.

However, it is the policy of SMU that “[a]s a private institution, SMU is generally not subject to these requests and declines to provide any information under a FOIA request.”

There is significant ambiguity surrounding the applicability of public information laws to entities such as SMU that receive state funds but are not wholly reliant upon them for operation.

“Regardless of the law, it is the organization’s choice as to how transparent it wants to be,” commented First Amendment law expert and attorney Tony McDonald.

With a lack of official information being released by the Clinic, the only real sources for examining who is benefitting from its services are publicly-available press releases, interviews, and news articles.

One of the most prominent voices on the Clinic’s activities — and potentially a window into its attitudes — is lawyer Thomas Leatherbury, who serves as its current director.

Leatherbury is a senior partner at Vinson & Elkins LLP, where he has experience in First Amendment litigation. His law firm is based in Houston, Texas with offices elsewhere, including Dallas where Leatherbury is based.

Outside of Leatherbury, the exact relationship between Vinson & Elkins LLP and the SMU First Amendment Clinic is not readily apparent.

The law firm’s website touts its pro bono endeavors, which allegedly includes representing migrants in asylum proceedings as well as partnering with Texas Appleseed—an organization that “promotes social, economic, and racial justice for all Texans by leveraging the skills and resources of volunteer lawyers, other professionals, and community partners to identify practical solutions to difficult, systemic problems.”

The SMU First Amendment Clinic and its mission were not mentioned.

The Dallas Express reached out to Vinson & Elkins LLP in an attempt to better understand this relationship. Senior leadership of the firm was asked what overlap exists, if any, between the First Amendment Clinic’s cases and the work they have been engaged to work on.

Further, The Dallas Express inquired what resources of Vinson & Elkins LLP are utilized to support the casework of the SMU First Amendment Clinic and whether the firm has ever received any compensation for services, expertise, or human resources.

As with requests for comment to SMU, The Dallas Express was met with silence by Vinson & Elkins LLP.

Leatherbury himself is no stranger to participating in the media, regularly providing comment and perspective on First Amendment issues as well as cases he is involved in currently.

In April 2022, he penned an op-ed criticizing the manner in which parents and lawmakers have recently pushed to remove books from schools that they deem explicit, divisive, or even pornographic in nature.

He has also appeared numerous times in the press decrying the recently passed state law banning “viewpoint censorship” by social media companies.

Both of these positions carved out by Leatherbury are in stark opposition to the views of millions of Texans, who have rallied around them in recent times.

Due to the lack of a public record of the cases SMU’s First Amendment Clinic has participated in, The Dallas Express‘s attempts to garner comment on the Clinic’s activities from others in the public policy litigation space have run aground.

What is next is whether SMU will choose to hide behind the “unanswered question” laid out by McDonald or choose transparency. For now, the public has only the words of Leatherbury and other similar breadcrumbs to determine the motivations and focus of the First Amendment Clinic.

The Dallas Express will continue to report on this issue as more information becomes available.

This story was pitched to The Dallas Express by one of our readers. Do you have a story you think should be covered or a tip on breaking news? Submit your idea here.

Disclosure: The Dallas Express has sued The Dallas Weekly and Mr. Steve Monacelli, a local blogger, for outright fabrication who are both represented by Vinson & Elkins’ Tom Leatherbury & SMU’s “First Amendment Center.”  The Dallas Express has won the first hearing at the trial court level.

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    Wonder if those they help are obligated for life

  2. LFMinDallas

    Quite the oxymoron. They fight for 1st amendment rights which includes free speech, but they won’t speak freely themselves. FOIA probably doesn’t apply, but they stand behind their own rights of privacy while accepting payment of tuition through government backed loans and tax free donations. That seems to be a really grey area that they walk in. Silence is some times it’s own indictment.

    Keep pushing and looking, it will pay off sooner or later hopefully.

  3. NutsAndBoltsGuy

    I view their silence along with the director’s viewpoints as presumptive evidence that they are a leftist NGO cloaked within the SMU Law Program as an admirable general community assistance effort, until they can exhibit otherwise.

    Are there any resultant tax, legal or charitable implications of (presumably) concealing such hyper political activity?


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