Thursday, March 11, 2010

Ripped from the Headlines--The Court and the Freedom of Speech

The Court and the Freedom of Speech
Reference Hippocampus: Lesson 35 and Lesson 34

Here is a case that is actually near and dear to my heart. In the 1970s I lived in Topeka, Kansas about two blocks from the home/compound of the Fred Phelps family. I had several neighborhood encounters with this now infamous family that were less than pleasant. I never dreamed back then that the Phelps family of lawyers/ministers would be the center of attention in a Free Speech case that gained national notoriety. So now, 35 years later, I am watching with interest while Topeka enters center stage in a national controversy.

The case of Snyder v. Phelps won't be heard until this fall by the Supreme Court, however, it can offer you an interesting teaching opportunity this spring. Here is what I am planning on doing with this case:

1st...I am having the students read several article on the case including the one from the NY Time noted above and also one from the Topeka Capital Journal in addition to any other articles they can find.

2nd...I am placing the students in small groups of two or three. Each group will be assigned as lawyers for the Snyder family or for the Phelps family or as an interested "outside" group that would present friend of the court briefs. The task is to create a legal argument (brief) supporting their family or interest group using past Court cases. Interest groups could include conservative church groups, gay rights coalitions, veteran groups, and city/state governments. In addition, one group (of three) will be Justices. The Justices will each be asked to research the case and write their opinions.

To help with this I am referring the students to a site that actually gives information on hate crimes and fighting language that will give the students case histories and access to Court opinions. In addition to the concept of Free Speech, I will encourage the kids to consider the Free Exercise Clause and subsequent cases given in Hippocampus.

3rd...The task for the students will be to write a brief arguing their point of view. We have discussed briefs in class and will look at templates for briefs that are on-line. I am asking the students to keep their brief simple and succinct. Once these are done, we will present the briefs orally to the Justices and the Justices will render a Court opinion on the case.

While the class won't know until next November or December the decision of the real Supreme Court, this exercise will allow them to review important cases from the 1st Amendment while gaining further understanding of how the Court arrives at decisions.

Depending on your time, you can make this as complicated or simple as needed. I am getting pretty stretched for time in my classes, so I will make this a simple and quick project. You can tailor it to fit your needs. Prepare yourself, however, for some pretty brisk class discussions. This case seems to bring out knee jerk reactions in all who discuss it. RV

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