Legal Observing: A Simple and Powerful Way for Law Students to Contribute

By: Caitlin Yuhas

Over the years, law school programs have arguably become more robust with “real-world” opportunities for their students. Many now offer pro bono volunteer projects and clinical placements, for example. [1] Yet, without bar admission, a completed juris doctor, or a third-year practice certificate, it is still possible for students to feel stilted in what they can contribute to the greater legal community. Enter the National Lawyers Guild Legal Observer program – a chance to don a fetching green hat and help protect the constitutional rights of peaceful protesters. [2] As long as police brutality during lawful demonstrations exists, the LO program is vital to recording (and hopefully deterring) these incidents. [3] And for law students, it’s easy to join the cause.

The National Lawyers Guild and the Formation of the Legal Observer Program

The National Lawyers Guild is the oldest and largest progressive bar association in the country. [4] The Guild is made up of lawyers, law students, and other legal workers who aim to “function as an effective force in the service of the people by valuing human rights and the rights of ecosystems over property interests.” [5] The Guild founded its Legal Observer program in 1968 in response to protests cropping up in New York City, namely student demonstrations at Columbia University and other civil rights and anti-war assemblies. [6] At the same time, Guild members were rallying for the defense of those abused by police and then swept up in mass arrests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. [7]

The LO program falls under the leadership of the Guild’s Mass Defense Committee whose mission is to enable people to express their political beliefs without “unconstitutional disruption” or unwarranted police interference. [8] LOs are trained by Guild attorneys who often have professional ties to activist groups and are well-versed in litigation challenging police tactics during mass demonstrations. [9] Law students make up a significant portion of Legal Observers nationwide. [10]

What Purpose do LOs Serve?

Legal Observers have become a regular presence at mass assemblies across the country. [11] They are neutral parties at demonstrations, identifiable by their green baseball caps and passive demeanor. [12] Armed with notepads, cell phones, and cameras, each LO takes notes and videos of police and protester activity, particularly instances of intimidating behavior and perceived abuses of power. [13] If protesters are arrested, LOs attempt to record their names – Guild attorneys often provide legal defense for these protesters and the LOs that take names can serve as eyewitnesses should a civil or criminal case arise. [14]

If nothing else, LOs are a silent reminder that someone from the legal community is watching over demonstrations and, arguably, their presence thwarts First Amendment infringements and police aggression. [15] One activist even called LOs the “unsung heroes of American democracy” – not a bad distinction for a law student to have. [16]

Want to become a Legal Observer?

To become a legal observer, contact the Guild’s National Office or your nearest chapter to find out about upcoming training sessions. [17] These workshops are held several times a year throughout the country and a school can also request to host its own session. [18] After being led through the LO Manual by an experienced Guild member, you will be cleared to receive your green hat and can begin serving as an LO at mass assemblies. [19] Happy observing!

 

[1] See, e.g. Legal Volunteer Opportunities, Am. Bar Assoc’n (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://abaforlawstudents.com/events/initiatives-and-awards/volunteering-opportunities/; Law School Clinics Provide Real-World Training, Am. Bar Assoc’n (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://abaforlawstudents.com/2012/12/01/law-school-clinics-provide-real-world-training/.

[2] NLG Legal Observer Program, Nat’l Law. Guild (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.nlg.org/legalobservers/.

[3] See, e.g. Robert Patrick, FBI, DOJ Launch Investigation Into St. Louis Police’s Protest Practices, Governing (Nov. 21, 2017), http://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/tns-fbi-doj-st-louis-police-protests.html; Katie Nodjimbadem, The Long, Painful History of Police Brutality in the U.S., Smithsonian (July 27, 2017), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/long-painful-history-police-brutality-in-the-us-180964098/.

[4] About, Nat’l Law. Guild, https://www.nlg.org/about/ (last visited Feb. 4, 2019).

[5] Id.

[6] NLG Legal Observer Program, Nat’l Law. Guild (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.nlg.org/legalobservers/.

[7] See NLG Legal Observer Program, Nat’l Law. Guild (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.nlg.org/legalobservers/; Christopher Borrelli, They’re Watching, Whether the Whole World is Watching or Not. Legal Observers in Green Hats are Part of Chicago Protests, Chicago Trib. (Aug. 24, 2018), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ent-legal-observers-20180820-story.html.

[8] NLG Legal Observer Program, Nat’l Law. Guild (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.nlg.org/legalobservers/.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] See, e.g. Christopher Borrelli, They’re Watching, Whether the Whole World is Watching or Not. Legal Observers in Green Hats are Part of Chicago Protests, Chicago Trib. (Aug. 24, 2018), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ent-legal-observers-20180820-story.html; David O’Boyle, When Crowds Protest, Legal Observers Serve as Neutral Force, DC Bar (Feb. 14, 2017), https://www.dcbar.org/about-the-bar/news/legal-observers-as-a-neutral-force.cfm.

[12] See, e.g. Christopher Borrelli, They’re Watching, Whether the Whole World is Watching or Not. Legal Observers in Green Hats are Part of Chicago Protests, Chicago Trib. (Aug. 24, 2018), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ent-legal-observers-20180820-story.html; David O’Boyle, When Crowds Protest, Legal Observers Serve as Neutral Force, DC Bar (Feb. 14, 2017), https://www.dcbar.org/about-the-bar/news/legal-observers-as-a-neutral-force.cfm.

[13] See Christopher Borrelli, They’re Watching, Whether the Whole World is Watching or Not. Legal Observers in Green Hats are Part of Chicago Protests, Chicago Trib. (Aug. 24, 2018), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ent-legal-observers-20180820-story.html; David O’Boyle, When Crowds Protest, Legal Observers Serve as Neutral Force, DC Bar (Feb. 14, 2017), https://www.dcbar.org/about-the-bar/news/legal-observers-as-a-neutral-force.cfm.

[14] NLG Legal Observer Program, Nat’l Law. Guild (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.nlg.org/legalobservers/.

[15] See Christopher Borrelli, They’re Watching, Whether the Whole World is Watching or Not. Legal Observers in Green Hats are Part of Chicago Protests, Chicago Trib. (Aug. 24, 2018), https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-ent-legal-observers-20180820-story.html.

[16] Id.

[17] NLG Legal Observer Program, Nat’l Law. Guild (last visited Feb. 4, 2019), https://www.nlg.org/legalobservers/.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

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