This morning, thanks to the ACLU, I was able to speak to a classroom full of eighth graders at a San Diego area middle school. While I don’t agree with everything the ACLU does, getting lawyers like me to volunteer time to engage students around the importance and the meaning of the Constitution is unquestionably a good thing. I was excited for this morning’s presentation and really couldn’t wait to meet the future of our country. What follows are my random observations.
The teacher, a petite, energetic Filipina woman who seemed very passionate about her job, greeted each student with dap as they walked, single-file, into the room. Cool! The class started off with CNN student news on a large screen at the front of the class. I watched as the news covered a train derailment, the President’s views on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, conflicts in Russia and Syria, and a few other odds and ends. I quickly made some notes about how I’d weave some of these points into the 50 minutes I’d have. As the lights came up and the teacher prepared to introduce me, I thought again about what a great opportunity this was not just to talk about the Constitution but also to add just a nugget of inspiration to young minds and help them see what possibilities the world holds. I’d be talking about the 1st Amendment and channeling my best Ilya Somin (my con law professor).
We talked first about how adults sometimes talk at young people, not to or truly with them. How the students are all thinking people and over the next 50 minutes how we’d have a conversation that respected their intellects as much as my own. They I turned to my own background. I asked them if they knew what a foster child was. Two hands went up. One of the students said something about it being when your parents can’t take care of you and you live somewhere else. Exactly! I responded. Something has gone wrong at home and you end up living with other people. Then I told them that I was a foster child right here in San Diego. That I had went to schools near this one that many knew or had went to themselves. I shared with them that I had many foster brothers and sisters and that the reason for sharing this story is so that they could see that no matter what their circumstances at birth or right now, the work they were doing now could create for them whatever future they wanted. I told them how in my house growing up I remembered hearing “we can’t afford that” or “we don’t have the money for that right now” for everything from certain cereal to types of clothes. I asked for a show of hands about how many had heard similar things. At a Title I school it will be no surprise that most hands went up. Title I refers to having an overwhelming percentage of students who are so poor they receive free or reduced lunches. Anyway, I asked that question because I wanted to be able to tell them that the only way they would secure the financial freedom not to have such worries was to go past high school to some type of additional education. Didn’t have to be a four year university, they could be a mechanic or a carpenter or work in the health field, but they should not have their minds trained on simply getting into or graduating high school if they wanted freedom. That is one of the benefits for me of having become a lawyer.
I moved on to begin to talk about the first amendment to the US Constitution. It guarantees three categories of things: religion, expression, and action. And as if back in front of a jury I spent the next 50 minutes revisiting these themes: religion, expression, and action. What did I mean?
I told them the first amendment guarantees that Congress won’t make a law that decides what religion is allowed. “The Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” – this is the “establishment clause.” I appointed five City Council members (nudging two girls into the appointments, as my volunteers were entirely boys) and a Mayor from among the students and used them as a local parallel to talk about how it worked. Let’s say we created a law that every student had to pray 10 times each day to the God of the Council’s choosing. Did they think it was Constitutional? A resounding no. Why? *crickets* Because our constitution protects us from having our government tell us what religion we acceptable or making laws that establish a particular religion. What if, I asked, we instead made it so that every student had 30 seconds in the morning to pray or not pray, to sit in quiet contemplation as they chose, would that be okay? General head nodding ensued. Good. Although they don’t fully know why, their instincts suggest that the law doesn’t require no expression that might be voluntarily associated with religion, it just doesn’t allow the government to force the elected leaders’ religions on everyone else. Now, what about this whole “free exercise” thing? “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… -“free exercise” clause. This one went more quickly. The Congress – or in this case the Council – can’t pass a law that stops you from being Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or Muslim or…Atheist. Class, what’s an atheist? This wasn’t my place to tell them what to believe or not to believe, but I did make sure they know the Free Exercise clause includes the freedom not to exercise a religion as well.
There was a lot more, but I want to get to some very interesting observations from the other freedoms protected. To recap: religion, expression, action. That’s what our first amendment is about.
As we turned to expression – speech and the press – I reminded them of the Colin Kaepernick question raised in the news they’d watched earlier. I even went down to one knee for a little dramatic flare! Back to my City Council appointees, do you think it’s okay to pass a law that requires him to stand and sing the national anthem? Not a one. What about my mayor, you want to lead a citizen’s initiative to get such a law? Nope. Okay, well, that ruins the point. There are people, I explained, who feel strongly that he should stand as a sign of respect for those who fought for this country and the freedoms the flag represents. This opinion, I said, is as worthy of respect as the opinion that he should be able to kneel. But what does the Constitution say? “…or abridging the freedom of speech…” – the free speech protection. I had to explain how this clause actually protects speech and expression and, actually, not speaking (or in this case singing). Whether we think it is morally right or wrong to protest in that way is a separate question to whether our government should have the authority to dictate what we do. This was a great teachable moment.
“…or of the press.” – the freedom of the press. What is the press, I ask? Umm, like, the news and writing? Yes. Exactly. Like the news you just watched, that’s an example. But why, I ask, does this even matter. Why shouldn’t the government be able to control what journalists write? *blank stares* How will we know, I said, what is actually happening in our country if the government gets to control what hear and see? How will we know about the train derailment? Colin Kaepernick didn’t kneel in our classroom, how would we even know there’s an issue without some protection on the reporting of our news? Ooohhh, I see. *nodding heads* Does anyone know of countries that don’t have these protections? This led to a quick conversation about a few such countries.
To recap, the first amendment protections are: religion (establishment and free exercise), expression (speech and the press), and action (peaceful assembly and redress).
The action part is where things got interesting. So class, how do you protect your rights when you think a law is constitutional? Protest! Sue! Both are right, but with caveats (or warnings). What’s an example of a protest, I ask? My appointed Mayor almost jumps out of his seat to tell me about the protest for a man who was shot and killed by police in El Cajon, a community just east of San Diego, a few days ago. Show of hands, how many of you know what Johnny (changed name) is talking about? About half the class. Okay, so, let’s talk about that. I made a choice not to mention the racial background of the victim. I made that choice not because I think it’s never relevant, but because I think it’s not always relevant. And we shouldn’t jump to conclusions about what’s in each other’s hearts. That’s a really dangerous bit of business. Anyway, back on task, a bunch of people have gotten together because they are outraged about the shooting death of a man by law enforcement. “…or the right of the people peaceably to assemble…” – peaceful assembly protection. What does this right give you? They all got that this is where the right to protest is protected. Can they do anything when they protest? Johnny again busts out of his chair to clarify that they can’t go burning stuff, another student says they can’t vandalize or commit crimes. Yes, yes, and more yes! I remind them that lynch mobs were groups of people who came together for the purpose of killing Black people. This was an example of an assembly that was not peaceful and therefore should not have been protected (though tragically frequently was). I told them that most people don’t know that Mexican Americans were also killed and lynched and hung from trees in the southwest of the United States. It doesn’t get as much attention in history books, but those lives are no less important and it shows a commonality between the histories of some groups. At this point, we left the law and went to policy as Johnny asked yet another question. “Do you think the police had justification for shooting him?”
Good for him for asking the question. I told him I think we need to be careful about what we assume because we weren’t there. I think I told the class that I don’t know what happened, but would like to think police could have some alternatives between ‘utter a command/multiple commands’ and ‘death.’ I’ll save a conversation about the POST law enforcement training standards in California for another day. That wasn’t part of my conversation on this day.
I don’t have time to write about my Korematsu discussion, but it was interesting (the imprisonment of US citizens of Japanese descent during World War II just because their ancestry was Japanese). But I do have time to talk about the last protection.
Quick reminder, the first amendment protects religion, expression and action. We straight? Okay, last part.
“…and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances.” – right of redress. This is our right to sue to protect all the other rights. Protesting can be valuable, but legal change of unconstitutional laws happens within our government and requires its action. So there must be some protection, enshrined in our guiding document, for that right. This is it. There is a reason, I explained, that this is the first set of rights our framers protected. Think something is unconstitutional? You lobby your legislature to fix it or you sue the executive branch to fix it. I used the story of Homer Plessy to bring this message home. I talked about how he was a Black man in New Orleans who was so light he could pass for White. How he intentionally boarded a train and sat in a car that he was not allowed to sit in so that when he stood up – again, I stood tall and raised my hand for effect – and announced that he was Black they’d have to arrest him and he would have the opportunity to sue the government…petition it for the redress of a grievance. Boom.
Religion, expression, action.
Incidentally, there was one White student in this class. I wanted to tell the student that they were in a lucky position. They would experience the world from the earliest ages without many of the baked in prejudices. They’d grow up with a comfort around Tagalog, and Blackness and Spanish and customs of “minorities” that would make that student better able to appreciate the richness of America. I hoped that the student didn’t feel the alienation that being the “only” of some obvious external characteristic can sometimes lead to. I imagined that this experience might help that student understand better than many people what cultural isolation feels like. It wasn’t central to my experience at the school, and in fact it took me longer to write than the thought at the time I had it. But I wanted to share.
I saw in the faces of these students an optimism that was refreshing. At least for moments during that 50 minutes they believed me when I said we didn’t need to allow sexism and that it was as much the responsibility of the boys in the room who would one day be fathers to sons and daughters as it was of the girls to demand equality. They believed, at least some of them, that our country, warts and all, is a great place with protections for rights that we uphold in the face of sometimes vile exercise of those rights. Our constitution protects our rights and our humanity must guide our exercise of them. It was a special experience that I’m fortunate and thankful to have had the opportunity to participate in.
I started this blog to talk about four things I like: food, drink, giving, and travel. This post is about the giving. And how people who are fortunate to have gotten an education, to have been loved at home (yes, that’s good fortune), who benefited from random kindness, can turn around and use those gifts to give to society. Today’s post was a small example. Whatever gift you have, please share it with a young person.
Thanks for reading.