Moot Court legal issue focuses on student threats

Thursday, February 24, 2005

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The 15th annual National First Amendment Moot Court competition, sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the Vanderbilt University School of Law, will be conducted Feb. 24-25, 2005.

The competition, which annually attracts many of nation’s top law schools, focuses this year on a cutting-edge First Amendment issue, student speech in an era of heightened concern about security.

“First Amendment rights of students regularly are colliding nationwide with school administrators’ concerns over safety and security, as well as an orderly education process,” said Gene Policinski, executive director of the First Amendment Center.

Competing this year in the two-day competition are 36 teams of law students from law schools across the U.S. More than 200 attorneys, professors, federal and state judges, and legal scholars will judge the preliminary rounds and final rounds.

A total of $5,000 in prizes is awarded to winning, runner-up and semi-finalist teams, and to individuals for “best brief” and “best oralist.”

Competition began this morning in rounds held both at the Vanderbilt School of Law and at the John Seigenthaler Center on the Vanderbilt campus, home to the Nashville offices of the First Amendment Center.

A new honor is being introduced this year: The student who receives the highest “oral argument” score in preliminary rounds will receive an engraved gavel in honor of Richard S. Arnold, a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arnold, who died in 2004, was a staunch advocate for better press-bar relations so that the public would be better informed about the activities of the federal court system.

“Judge Arnold also was a great supporter of the law students participating in the National First Amendment Moot Court Competition. He cared deeply for the future of the legal profession and the judiciary,” said Tiffany Villager, director of legal research for the First Amendment Center.

Semi-final and final-round judges in the 2005 competition will include, from the federal judiciary, Todd J. Campbell, district judge, Middle District of Tennessee;  Martha Craig Daughtrey, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Robert L. Echols, chief judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Sidney A. Fitzwater, district judge, Northern District of Texas; Julia Smith Gibbons, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; William J. Haynes, district judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Marian F. Harrison, bankruptcy judge, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for Middle Tennessee; Sven E. Holmes, chief judge, Northern District of Oklahoma; Gilbert S. Merritt, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; and A.A. Birch, Tennessee Supreme Court justice.

A two-person team from Western New England College School of Law, Springfield, Mass., won last year’s competition. The demanding competition requires students to write an appellate brief and to answer challenging legal questions from the judges. The event requires a thorough understanding of First Amendment law, poise under pressure and mental gymnastics.

The moot court argument this year features a scenario of disciplinary actions taken by public school administrators against a student whose oral or written communications, both in and out of school, suggest a deep hostility toward the school authorities or fellow students. This year’s problem explores whether the student expression involved in these cases is protected by the First Amendment as free speech or is subject to regulation by the school authorities either as a form of “true threat” or as a disruption of the school’s learning environment.

The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.

The First Amendment Center is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum. The center has at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and Arlington, Va. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

# # #

Press contacts: Jenny Atkinson or Gene Policinski, 615/727-1600