Clinic Wins Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Prize

Team’s advocacy led to landmark human rights decision
The Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples Clinic at Suffolk University Law School and its partners won the Columbia Global Freedom of Expression Prize at a New York City ceremony last month. [Watch a short video explaining the case and its impact.]

The honor, in the Excellence in Legal Services category, recognizes the clinic’s victory in a landmark legal case, Maya Kaqchikel Indigenous Peoples of Sumpango et al. v. Guatemala, (Inter-Am Ct of H.R., Judgment, Oct. 6, 2021), before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Inter-American Court).

“Their tireless advocacy… led to a landmark decision that challenged discriminatory regulations on radio frequency allocation in Guatemala,” the awards committee wrote, noting that the case sets a precedent for the free expression rights of Indigenous peoples and “is transformative for the entire region.” It is the first known international case to recognize Indigenous peoples’ rights to operate their own media.
Nicole Friederichs, JD ’03, and Adjunct Professor Amy Van Zyl-Chavarro, JD ’07 at Columbia University with attorney Adriana Sunun of the Association of Maya Lawyers and Notaries of Guatemala
Adjunct Professor Amy Van Zyl-Chavarro, JD ’07; attorney Adriana Sunun of the Association of Maya Lawyers and Notaries of Guatemala; and Clinic Director Nicole Friederichs, JD '03

In 2021, the Inter-American Court’s decision in the case ordered the Guatemalan government to halt its raids on Indigenous radio stations, stop criminal prosecutions, and reserve parts of the radio spectrum for Indigenous community stations, among other requirements. Since then, the clinic has responded to the Court’s requests for assessments of the Guatemalan government’s implementation of reparations.

Clinic Director Nicole Friederichs, JD ’03, and Adjunct Professor Amy Van Zyl-Chavarro, JD ’07, were honored at the ceremony along with attorney Adriana Sunun of the Association of Maya Lawyers and Notaries of Guatemala, the Clinic’s legal partner in Guatemala. Cristian Otzin of the Association of Maya Lawyers and Notaries of Guatemala is also a member of the legal teams.

Since 2012, when the petition was first filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, over thirty clinic students have worked on the case, and five of them were recognized for their contributions to the merits brief before the Court.

In her remarks at the ceremony, Friederichs noted that Suffolk Law Professor Lorie Graham’s expert written testimony on the right to media was relied upon by the Court.

Before and during the course of the litigation, Guatemalan state authorities raided at least 15 Indigenous community radio stations. They confiscated transmission equipment and criminally prosecuted Indigenous community radio volunteers for operating without a state license.

The raids silenced a critical source of community news and cultural expression, Friederichs said during her remarks at the event. “We share this prize with those individuals and communities who marched and organized and lobbied, who volunteered at indigenous community radio stations, often in fear of police action, and with those who lived through raids, or even worse, were subjected to criminal prosecution,” she said.

Introducing the award, the program’s Prize Manager Alejandra Negrete noted how the Clinic’s “solid legal arguments and general theory of the case …were reflected in the landmark judgment of the Inter-American Court.” Specifically, in its brief to the Court, Negrete said, the Clinic highlighted how the Guetemalan Government’s “violation of freedom of expression obstructs the ideals of pluralism, democracy and equality and how the exercise of freedom of expression was particularly linked to the right to culture which is fundamental to the survival of Indigenous peoples.”

Indigenous peoples in Guatemala—who comprise nearly half of the Guatemalan population—have little access to the internet and generally don’t speak Spanish as a first language, according to a video about the case created by the Columbia awards committee.

Radio programming in local dialects, such as K’iche’, Kaqchikel, and Mam, is often the only gateway to local news and music, and to debate about local and national issues. But, until the court decision, legally accessing radio frequencies has been impossible for Indigenous communities because of to the high cost of state-issued licenses, which, until the court decision, were only auctioned off through a bidding process. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which sits in Costa Rica, agreed with the clinic’s argument that the Guatemalan government’s licensing process was discriminatory.

The Court adjudicates alleged violations of rights enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights or other relevant human rights treaties in the Inter-American human rights system. That system protects human rights in 35 countries in South, Central, and North America, including the U.S.

The case was brought to the clinic’s attention by Cultural Survival, an indigenous rights organization, which asked the clinic to file the petition on behalf of four indigenous communitities in 2012.