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SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR: The people of our country have to understand what it means to say we believe in the rule of law, and that means we have to teach it to every generation, and it's not as simple as it sounds.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
That's retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor speaking at a conference on the need for civics education a few years ago. Here in Washington, the judges of the U.S. courts have taken up that challenge each year. They invite hundreds of public school students to watch a recreation of a Supreme Court case on a subject that affects the kids personally - the First Amendment rights of students. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg picks up the story.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Earlier this month, some 240 middle and high school students from D.C. public schools took the subway to the federal courthouse. They were there to watch a re-enactment of a landmark Supreme Court case - Tinker vs. the Des Moines School District. The Tinker in the case was 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker, daughter of a minister and one of five students who in 1965 were suspended for wearing black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War.
Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule by a 7-to-2 vote that schoolchildren do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate. Students cannot be censored, the court said, unless their speech is disruptive. On this day, Mary Beth Tinker, now 65, is in the courtroom to set up the case and take questions from the students. Among them, seventh-grader Muhamad Osman.
MUHAMAD OSMAN: Do you have any personal connections to anyone that was actually involved in the Vietnam War that could have possibly inspired you?
MARY BETH TINKER: Where we got our feelings about the war was from the news because that's how we learned about the war and everything that was going on in the world.
TOTENBERG: Soon, federal Marshal Bryant Johnston comes in to tell the youngsters what the protocol is when they hear him announce the opening of court.
BRYANT JOHNSON: All rise. His honorable court is now in session.
TOTENBERG: Sitting high up on the bench are Judges David Tatel and Sri Srinivasan of the federal appeals court and Judge Ketanji Jackson of the federal trial court. Using a condensed version of the official Supreme Court transcript, they will read the actual questions the Supreme Court justices asked, and Judge Tatel's law clerks will play the lawyers. Judge Jackson weighs in early.
KETANJI JACKSON: (Reading) The students were studying English or math and then they're also supposed to be thinking about the Vietnam War according to Ms. Tinker. Isn't that going to be a distraction to the students?
ZAYN SIDDIQUE: (Reading) No, I don't think so. I believe that the method the students chose was designed in a way that it would not cause any kind of disruption.
TOTENBERG: Judge Tatel asks whether the same reasoning would apply to political buttons. Yes, replies the lawyer for Tinker. Judge Srinivasan jumps in.
SRI SRINIVASAN: (Reading) Counsel, I suppose you would concede that if the armband started fistfights, a principal could prohibit students from wearing them.
SIDDIQUE: (Reading) I think in that case the school could probably ban whatever item caused the fight.
SRINIVASAN: (Reading) Did you say probably?
SIDDIQUE: (Reading) I'm hesitant, Your Honor, because I can imagine a situation where a student wants to wear a shirt with a relatively harmless message, but another student overreacts and starts a fight. I think we have to look at how provocative the message actually was.
TOTENBERG: Then it's time for the lawyer for the Des Moines School District to make his argument.
NICK SANSONE: (Reading) As we view it, the right to freedom of speech on school premises must be weighed against the right of the school administrators to exercise reasonable judgment to avoid disruptions in schools.
TOTENBERG: He tells the court that two of the boys who wore the armbands were later punched. That prompts this question from Judge Tatel.
DAVID TATEL: (Reading) Is that unusual? How many boys are normally punched each day in the Des Moines school system?
SANSONE: (Reading) Does the school district have to wait until there is a disruption? Or should it be allowed to take steps to prevent disruptions?
TOTENBERG: Judge Tatel asks, what if the students instead had worn black ties to mourn fallen soldiers in Vietnam? Counsel for the school board replies that such decisions should be left up to school administrators. Moments later, Judge Srinivasan reads the decision of the court. Students, he says, are persons under the Constitution.
SRINIVASAN: (Reading) They have rights, which the government must respect. In our country, students may not be forced to express only those views that are officially approved by school administrators.
TOTENBERG: Then comes the dissent, voiced by Judge Jackson.
JACKSON: (Reading) One does not need special powers to see that after today's decision some students in Iowa schools and in schools across the country will be ready, able and willing to defy practically all of their teachers' orders. Accordingly, I dissent.
TOTENBERG: Later, as the students munch on pizza in the court atrium, several take issue with the dissent.
SARAHTI GRASSAMALLA: Just because, oh, students broke one rule for a certain reason because they believed that a rule was unjust, I don't think that means that students will try to break every rule.
TOTENBERG: And many were inspired by Mary Beth Tinker.
JOHNEICE MARQUEZ: I was just very interested in how they stood up and fought for what they believed in. I want to be the same.
TOTENBERG: Overall, the kids seemed impressed that this 50-year-old case was relevant to their lives.
SORACHA MCGRATH: And it was just so amazing to see something that even though it was so long ago, it's still so prevalent today.
TYLER DAVIS: This is my first time being at a court in general, so I really liked it.
TOTENBERG: In order, that was Sarahti Grassamalla, Johneice Marquez, Soracha McGrath, Tyler Davis, and I'm Nina Totenberg, NPR News, in Washington.
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