Civic education, First Amendment on display at competition

Monday, April 30, 2012

This weekend I heard informed and sometimes passionate discussion by high school students across the country on the importance of the First Amendment freedoms of assembly, petition and association.

I served as a judge for the Center for Civic Education’s 25th annual We The People national finals. The competition brings together top teams of students from every state to discuss constitutional questions. Here’s yesterday’s multi-part question on the Bill of Rights:

“How and why are the rights of assembly, petition, and association linked to the concept of popular sovereignty?

  • “How have those rights been used throughout American history to protect the rights of individuals and minorities?
  • “Do the rights of petition and assembly imply a corresponding duty on the part of government to respond? Why or why not?”

Many competitors discussed the importance of freedom of assembly in the women’s suffrage movement of the 1910s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring were also on many students’ minds. Others recounted the history of the right to petition, tracing it back to the Magna Carta of 1215 and carrying it forward to the abolitionists. Still others outlined the development of the freedom of association.

Some students displayed nuanced understanding of First Amendment concepts such as content-neutrality, time, place and manner restrictions and the public-forum doctrine. They cited cases and, more important, showed they understood the underlying principles … such as that speech restrictions cannot be based on the content of the speech, and that the exercise of First Amendment freedoms can sometimes be limited as to when, where and how they are exercised.

These rich conversations about the Constitution highlighted the value of good civic education. They were a real battery-recharger for organizations with civic-education missions like the Newseum and the First Amendment Center.

The Center for Civic Education finals also brought to mind a stirring passage from Justice Robert Jackson years ago: “That [schools] are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.”