By Olivia Klein
For Nancy Fairbank, J.D. ‘22, the Democracy and the Rule of Law Clinic offered a chance to take hands-on action towards strengthening U.S. democracy. “I was motivated to do this clinic in large part because of the events happening in the U.S. in the last few years,” she reflects. “I think we’ve seen a lot of challenges to democracy in America. The work Protect Democracy is doing felt so pivotal, and I was excited to join in that work and to learn more about these issues.”
The Democracy and the Rule of Law Clinic places HLS students in externships with Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to preventing our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government. The clinic focuses on issues such as ensuring the impartial application of the rule of law; safeguarding healthy civic institutions that allow for public participation in political debate; prohibiting official corruption; and challenging government if it targets certain people or groups in our society.
“The team tries to be really in tune with what’s going on in the world,” said Fairbank. “For example, they’ve found cases by reading the local news and learning what’s going on with voter rights and things of that nature. They have to be abreast of potential new threats to democracy in the U.S., so they must know what’s happening on a national level, but also on a state and local level.”
In a world with an increasing reliance on digital technologies, new and unprecedented threats to democracy emerge on a daily basis – one such threat is deepfake videos, videos that use machine learning technology to replace an existing video with someone else’s likeness. As the technology used to make these videos improves, so too do their persuasiveness and inability to be distinguished from real content. As such, deepfake videos of political and other influential figures have the potential to cause disruption and division by spreading falsehoods. Fairbank was eager to tackle this issue as one of her projects this spring.
“I got to write a memo about deepfakes and how deepfake videos have the potential to disrupt democracy in the US. It was a special project because I was given a lot of autonomy. I had a general structure and idea of what they wanted, but they left it to me to discern what the important issues were in this topic area and to offer suggested approaches on how Protect Democracy could be addressing the threat of deepfakes. I was the one driving behind the wheel. I had known some things about deepfakes before, but I got to learn a lot, specifically about their application to threatening democracy.”
After the semester concluded, Fairbank was invited back to present her memo to a Protect Democracy team. “One of the things I loved about the clinic is that it felt like my work mattered and that they took my recommendations seriously,” she said. “It felt like I wasn’t just throwing research into the void. They really take the student work seriously and it helps inform what they do.”
Working with the team of Protect Democracy attorneys was a highlight for Fairbank. “The clinical instructors and supervising attorneys were wonderful, smart, warm, funny, interesting, and deeply passionate people,” she said. “They were so invested in the students’ work and that we were learning and growing throughout the clinic. I’d have meetings throughout the semester with my supervisors on projects, and they gave extremely thoughtful feedback and went above and beyond in ensuring that I was having a good experience in the clinic.”
Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan organization, which allowed for a politically diverse cohort of attorneys and students to unite with a common goal. As Fairbank says, “You don’t have to be on one side or the other to care about democracy.” Her fellow students also made the clinical experience memorable. “We had a group of students that were able to challenge and support each other throughout the clinic, and I really appreciated those folks and made some good friends in the clinic.”
After graduation, Fairbank will head to the litigation boutique Selendy Gay Elsberg PLLC for a year before clerking for Judge John Walker on the Second Circuit. Reflecting on lessons learned in the clinic that she’ll bring to her future work, Fairbank recalls her variety of projects at Protect Democracy and their real-world implications. “Really understanding how to get to the heart of an issue was something I learned in the clinic. There are things that need to be addressed swiftly due to how fast they’re moving in the real world. You want to ensure that you’re creating a work product that really emphasizes what’s important up front. I think that’ll be a pivotal thing to continue doing throughout my legal career.”