The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a Charlottesville nonprofit long dedicated to promoting the First Amendment, announced Monday that it will close after donating its assets to the University of Virginia School of Law.

The gift of more than $1 million will relaunch the school’s First Amendment Clinic, which is one of the oldest in the country but which has been on a brief hiatus. The clinic will be taught by attorneys at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a national nonprofit that provides free legal services to journalists.

“We had almost 30 years as a center,” said Bruce Sanford, a First Amendment lawyer who has been chair of the board since the center’s founding. “But we think this will be a great win-win both for UVa and for the Reporter’s Committee.”

The center was founded in 1989 with gifts from Thomas E. Worrell, Jr., a former owner of The Daily Progress. The founding director was Bob O’Neil, former president of UVa.

Initially, Sanford said, the center hoped identify and help litigate civil liberties cases itself, “but that was easier said than done.”

So the center promoted a wide range of projects aimed at deepening the public understanding of the First Amendment, such as the annual Jefferson Muzzles awards, bestowed on government officials and others who had tried to stifle free expression. It also partnered with the Ford Foundation for a project called “Difficult Dialogues” about free speech on campus.

“Recently, Yale and Columbia clinics about the First Amendment have become really well-funded,” Sanford said. “We feel like these organizations, and at UVa, with the right resources, can really do a lot to tackle important issues.”

During the yearlong clinic, which will resume in August, law students will work with committee lawyers on issues involving free speech and press freedom, according to UVa. Students will conduct legal research, meet with clients and co-counsel, and draft legal memoranda and briefs. Assignments may lead to appellate-level and trial-level litigation.

The relaunched clinic “will teach the next generation of lawyers and advocates to advance crucial values, and we are grateful to the Thomas Jefferson Center for its support,” Dean Risa Goluboff said in a news release from the school.

The center said it looked forward to working on the program.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee and co-director of the clinic from 2010 to 2017, said in a new release, “We are excited to provide crucial needs-based legal help to journalists and documentarians throughout the region. At the same time, we are grateful to the board of the Thomas Jefferson Center for creating new opportunities for us around First Amendment scholarship and educational programming by tying us even more tightly to UVA Law School.”

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Ruth Serven Smith is a reporter for The Daily Progress. Contact her at (434) 978-7254, rserven@dailyprogress.com or @RuthServen on Twitter.

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