Students + Campus

UCLA law students fly to Miami to see their work presented in federal court

Eugene Volokh to deliver argument prepped by his First Amendment Clinic

Eugene Volokh

For the last four years, UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh has taught a First Amendment law clinic that has filed briefs in about 50 cases in federal and state courts across the country.

When three UCLA School of Law students travel to Miami on Thursday, Jan. 26, to watch UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh deliver an oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, they will get a rare opportunity to see their own work play out in federal court.

Third-year students Artin Afkhami, Elizabeth Arias and Eugene Lim dove into Tobinick v. Novella, a libel suit involving two doctors, through UCLA Law’s Scott and Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic. There, they honed their research, analytic and drafting skills as they assembled an amicus curiae brief on behalf of several academics with a deep interest in the issue at the core of the matter: open dialogue in the medical arena.

“This was one of the coolest experiences I have had at UCLA Law,” Afkhami says. “Not only did we argue for free speech, but we argued for a concerned scientist’s right to criticize a questionable but profitable medical treatment. So we defended free speech and public health at the same time.”

The case arose after Dr. Steven Novella posted online articles criticizing Dr. Edward Tobinick’s use of a drug called Embrel to treat Alzheimer’s disease and strokes. Tobinick, a California resident, filed a libel suit against Novella in Florida. The district court dismissed the case, and Tobinick appealed.

Volokh, UCLA’s Gary T. Schwartz Distinguished Professor of Law, and his students then offered their First Amendment expertise on behalf of several law professors and the University of Baltimore’s Center for Medicine and Law. They have two arguments: that Novella’s speech is not commercial and thus deserves the highest constitutional protection available; and, more controversially, that California’s anti-SLAPP statute, which deters lawsuits that chill free speech, should apply in federal court.

“It’s often helpful to have somebody representing impartial third parties who don’t have a dog in the fight,” Volokh says of amici curiae (friends of the court). He adds that oral arguments by amici are “relatively rare,” and whether one occurs often depends on the desires of the judges or the quality of the amicus brief. “If they look at the brief, and they say, ‘Hmm, these people have something valuable to add,’ then the court is more inclined.”

This appearance is the latest success for the four-year-old clinic, which has filed briefs in about 50 cases in federal and state courts across the country. Volokh has delivered oral arguments in 11 of those cases.

To have students observe in person, he says, is tremendously valuable.

“To be there in the court and see the lawyers, see the judges, see something that you’ve never really seen before that vividly in real life — students are understandably enthusiastic about that,” the law professor said.

This story is posted on the UCLA School of Law's website.

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