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Constitutional Literacy, a First Amendment Right to Fun

By Naveed Karbassyoon – April 9, 2013

On the weekend of April 5, 2013, in Washington D.C., oral arguments were heard regarding the First Amendment. No, the U.S. Supreme Court did not hold arguments over the weekend; instead, high-school students from 18 cities all over the country participated in the National Marshall-Brennan High School Moot Court Competition. Originating at American University, the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project opened chapters at 17 other law schools throughout the country. Every chapter selects a group of Marshall Brennan Fellows who commit an entire year to the program.

One of those chapters is located in the Rutgers School of Law-Camden. Unlike the neighboring city of Philadelphia, Camden is not known for its gourmet dining and art museums. A once wealthy and industrial city, Camden is now riddled with crime. Over 38 percent of Camden’s residents were below the poverty line in 2010. Rutgers is in the heart of downtown Camden, just a few blocks from the state and federal courthouses, City Hall, and the Camden County Jail. Given the surrounding environment and the community’s need for assistance, Rutgers School of Law is dedicated to public service, and the Marshall-Brennan program plays an integral part in that mission. Furthermore, every Marshall-Brennan Fellow is a full-time law student who demonstrates his or her commitment to public service through a full year (two concurrent semesters) of service. Despite the city’s failed economy, the high-school students who choose to participate in the program are exceptionally bright, motivated, and looking for new academic challenges.

As a Marshall-Brennan Fellow, I visited local Camden high schools in the fall and recruited students to participate in the Moot Court program. Once a week, the students came to the law school to attend a two-hour afterschool workshop. Throughout the first semester, the students were taught a number of skills ranging from how to brief a case to the construction of a persuasive argument. Much like a legal-writing class, case charts were used, and after a few weeks, the problem for the 2013 Moot Court Competition was given to the students, and their training in oral advocacy began shortly thereafter. A local competition was held in February 2013 to select the team of students who would represent the Rutgers Chapter in D.C. Last year’s team, led by Byron Guevara, went on to win the competition, beating out over 80 students from across the nation. Needless to say, Rutgers hopes to keep the good fortune alive for a second year.

In addition to the competition, Marshall-Brennan’s teaching component sends seven pairs of fellows to teach constitutional law classes three to four days a week for the duration of the law school’s spring semester. To prepare the fellows, the fall semester consists of instruction on teaching techniques, analysis of Supreme Court cases pertaining to the rights and privileges of high-school students, and lesson plans that are created pertaining to these subjects. At the end of the fall semester, each fellow submits a final project consisting of two parts: (1) a “Journal Style Note” on some topic pertaining to the Constitution, and (2) a lesson plan describing how the note will be taught to the students. Most schools incorporate the in-class instruction as an advanced civics course called Intellectual and Political Legal Education (IPLE).

To effectuate the purposes of the program, at the start of my first day of instruction, my teaching partner and I addressed a few administrative issues. After a couple of minutes on the participation requirement and reminders to be respectful, the students were less than eager to discuss the material. Normally, this reaction would have discouraged me, but we planned a “hook” to get the students excited about our first topic of discussion: the limitations of free speech in school.

The hook was simple and straightforward: I announced my pride for the Los Angeles Lakers and began to list reasons why they were the best basketball team in the NBA. Just as we planned, the class erupted in a loud discussion and the students were engaged. My partner quickly tied the discussion back to the Constitution and we were off. As we wrote out the First Amendment on the board, it was apparent that the students had some prior knowledge of the topic. So my partner and I skipped ahead to a discussion of the Iowa case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District,393 U.S. 503 (1969). Starting with a brief summary of the facts, we asked the students if Tinker (the petitioner) was rightfully suspended for wearing a black armband in protest of the Vietnam War. Not surprisingly, most of the students felt that Tinker should not have been suspended. So we asked them to come up with a test the Court could employ to determine whether the First Amendment protected similar future conduct.

Once we discussed the Court’s material and the substantial disruption test, a student asked for an example. As if on cue, a student’s cell phone rang. The student hurried to turn the ringer off and then sunk into his chair, embarrassed. I asked the class whether the ringer caused any disruption and thanked the student for his assistance in providing the perfect example. A few students said yes and others said no. Seeing my opportunity for a class debate, I allowed the students to argue their claims. Before I knew it, the students concluded that the ringer’s short disruption was not enough to be either material or substantial, surprising me in the eagerness for learning and application.

In states like New York, attorneys are required to complete between 20 and 25 hours of pro bono service a year. NY ST RPC Rule 6.1. More recently, there has been a trend toward requiring law-student completion of pro bono before being allowed bar membership. The Marshall-Brennan program stands as a great example of what pro bono can be. The empowerment of both law student and high-school pupil is invaluable, and in some ways is beyond what a clinic can offer, essentially bridging the gap between client and lawyer. In essence, law students act to empower students to know their rights and local law, so potentially, clinic services would never be needed. Marshall-Brennan presents a unique opportunity to allow for alternative pro bono choices in law school as well as a successful way to inspire continued community interaction.

Keywords: litigation, pro bono, public interest, constitutional law, teaching, children, moot court, Marshall-Brennan

Naveed Karbassyoon is a second-year law student at Rutgers University School of Law-Camden.

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