Law School students teach state high school students about Constitution

CU Law School student Jocelyn Jenks so enjoyed going out to teach state high school students about the Constitution in 2012 that she came back this year to participate as an alumna.

“The experience was wonderful, and I jumped at the opportunity to work with high school students again this year,” said Jenks (Law ‘12).

More than 50 Colorado Law students and dozens of alumni taught lessons on the First Amendment in up to 70 high school classrooms throughout Colorado in recognition of Constitution Day. The students and alumni visited classrooms in Arvada, Aurora, Boulder, Broomfield, Colorado Springs, Denver, Glenwood Springs, Greeley, Fort Collins, Lafayette and Westminster.

Constitution Day is a national event that commemorates the document’s signing on Sept. 17, 1787. The Constitution Day Project was launched in 2011 by the law school’s Byron R. White Center for the Study of American Constitutional Law.

This year’s lesson plan, created by law students with the guidance of law Professor Melissa Hart and several high school civics teachers, focused on the boundaries of freedom of speech. The lesson begins with a review of the basic structure of the Constitution and then focuses on the text of the First Amendment. After reviewing the law, students are guided through a debate about whether a student’s inflammatory words at a political protest amounted to fighting words in violation of the Constitution.

“The students really engaged with the First Amendment question our hypothetical case presented and saw that the question was not an easy one to answer,” said Hart, director of the Byron White Center. “There were arguments on both sides and students had to admit that the decisions judges have to make interpreting the Constitution are hard.”

Laura McNabb (Law ’12) fondly recalled her experience with Colorado high school students last year, including a visit to the city of Wray near the Nebraska border.

“From my perspective, one of the most valuable things this project teaches students is that it is not always clear how the law should apply to specific facts and that there is almost always a valuable counter-argument,” McNabb said. “This reality forces students to really listen to each other and think critically about what their peers are saying in order to develop a thoughtful response. I am continually impressed by the deeply thoughtful arguments these students can articulate in such a short period of time.”

Last year’s lesson involved the Fourth Amendment and a student’s expectation of privacy for his or her cell phone, followed by student debates. This year, the center also will discuss the First Amendment with CU-Boulder undergraduate students.

“We all benefit from having informed and engaged citizens,” McNabb said. “By providing young people with impartial information about the Constitution specifically, and the law more generally, this project helps students hone the knowledge and skills that they need to effectively participate in our democracy.”