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People’s Electric Law School

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rutgers School of Law–Newark was referred to by many in the law school community as “The People’s Electric Law School.” Professor Frank Askin, who joined Rutgers in 1966, explains the derivation of that name.

The Origins of the People’s Electric Law School
By Professor Frank Askin

Rutgers Law School–Newark was a cauldron of social and political activism in the second half of the 1960s, sparked by several intertwined events.

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Legal Matter, the SBA store, is now selling men’s and women’s T-shirts with this new People’s Electric Law School design.

The first was the decision of Dean Willard Heckel (with the concurrence of the faculty) to invite Arthur Kinoy, the lead lawyer for the Southern civil rights movement in the Sixties, to join the Rutgers faculty in 1965. The presence of Kinoy on the faculty persuaded many young civil rights activists to follow him to Newark.

Then, an urban uprising by the Newark black community, inflamed by abusive practices of the Police Department in the summer of 1967, unleashed a deadly “police riot.” Dean Heckel, who was also chair of the Newark anti-poverty program, opened the doors of the Law School as the headquarters for the local civil rights movement as it struggled to change the political and legal culture of the city of Newark.

As a consequence of the urban unrest, Dean Heckel also appointed a committee to create a Minority Student Program, with the aim of training a new generation of indigenous minority lawyers to better represent the community. As a result, beginning in the fall semester of 1968, the student body of the law school was transformed from an almost all-white, all-male demographic – as short on the heels of the MSP, the law school also embarked on a campaign to bring more women into the law school.

The new heterogeneous student body suddenly included a large cadre of students who were not seeking legal careers for personal wealth, but who came to a career in the law for the purpose of bringing about social change. Not only did the student body suddenly include large numbers of African-American students, many with a background in civil rights activity, but a large number of second-career women who suddenly realized they were welcome in this formerly male bastion.

The final piece of this transformation of the law school from a traditional academic institution to one that encouraged social activism was the demand of this newly-energized student body to make the curriculum more relevant to their desires to use the law as a vehicle for social change. And thus was born what was soon to become a school pioneering in clinic education, starting with the Constitutional Litigation Clinic and Urban Legal Clinic, but soon expanded to include clinics in Women’s Rights, Prisoner Rights and Labor Law.

According to one of the student originators of the term People’s Electric Law School, “We wanted to rename the law school and put together a term that would reflect our politics and counterculture.”