Sonoma County Office of Education

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Law Week Serves Hundreds of Students

05/30/2019 -

This year marked the sixteenth annual collaboration between SCOE and the Sonoma County Bar Association (SCBA) in holding Law Week in local high schools, including the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Center. Read more about it in this article by SCOE Career Development Contractor Rebecca Gallagher.

This year’s curriculum “Freedom of the Press” provided a concise review of press freedom, and an incisive review of limitations on that freedom. The curriculum included five creatively written case studies, providing clarification and context for teachers and their students.

I visit a few Law Week presentations each year. For Law Week 2019, I’d like to provide a snapshot of two presentations, both of which occurred at the Sonoma County Juvenile Justice Center. What follows are reflections on the experience, from the hosting teachers and several presenters:

Jim Reed teaches in Unit 4, which houses female juveniles at JJC. He said, “In our preparation for our Law Week presentation on First Amendment freedoms, we studied the 1734 Zenger case. Zenger criticized the colonial British government in his New York newspaper, was arrested, and freed by a jury. This precedent showed how colonial Americans believed that people had the right to criticize their government. Students learned that freedom of speech and press is important, because in a representative democracy, citizens need to be able to speak and publish their ideas about legislation, without fear of reprisal. During our Law Week presentation, students were encouraged to check a variety of news sources to guard against misleading, biased, or fake news. Also discussed were press protections, and limits on libel and obscenity; a student added, that you must prove malice to win a libel charge. Additionally discussed, was that U.S. troops movements, fighting words and obscenity are not protected speech; another student asked if freedom of speech applied in jail. Students became engaged in the discussion, enjoyed learning 'helpful things’, and asked that we have it more often.”

Dean of Empire Law School, Brian Purtill’s reflected on addressing students in Unit 4: “We circled the desks and sat with the students to have a discussion, rather than lecture. We tried to make the material relevant to their perspectives. They had keen observations on both the limitations of freedom of speech and the press. The students developed their own hypothetical fact patterns involving Mark Zuckerberg and Justin Bieber as Dan Lanahan presented material on libel and slander and the protections afforded the press when the subject is a celebrity; this allowed for some humorous moments in the discussion. Overall, students were engaged, insightful, and invested in the topic. It was not lost on all of us that we were discussing freedoms with young women who had temporarily lost theirs, and I think the students came away with a strong sense of the need to be alert, to not take these freedoms for granted, and to be judicious in judging the accuracy of the news of the day. I’d call the day a complete success and worth every hour of preparation.”

Co-presenter Dan Lanahan of Flack Law, PC, said,: “I was particularly impressed with the students' participation in the Socratic method and how, without the need for leading questions, they were able to differentiate the analysis of a ‘known falsity’ and a ‘reckless disregard for the truth’ within the actual malice burden applied in public figure libel actions. They were very quick to point out in our factitious fact pattern, that the newspaper did nothing to verify the story and that while the newspaper did not lie, their actions constituted more than just a simple mistake.“

Teacher Michelle Scarboro instructs in Unit 6, JJC’s maximum security unit for young men. She said, “Law Week is an excellent and meaningful program. The students in Juvenile Hall benefit from the knowledge the speakers bring to the units. Having hosted Law Week several times, I appreciate that the lawyers and judges speak to students without using jargon."

Our Law Week 2019 presenters provided well-researched information and then opened the conversation for questions. They were patient and understanding while answering each young man's queries. Some of the questions were more difficult to answer than others, generally because of the very specific details the students used in their examples. Many questions sounded like they pertain only to the First Amendment, but once examined, the questions covered more ground than just that - gang enhancements, vandalism, destruction of property, right to assemble for non-political speech, the juvenile versus adult justice systems, first amendment behavior while on probation, voting rights for felons, citizenship. Their curiosity was honored, satisfied, and piqued by our presenters.

I hope the Sonoma County Bar Association continues to support Law Week as it is one of the more meaningful and significant classroom experiences our students get. Thank you to all involved.”

New to the Law Week effort, attorney Daniel Wilson of Anderson Zeigler, presented in Unit 6: “When I first heard I was teaching a class at the Juvenile Justice Center, I had a mixture of curiosity and nerves. However, the students I addressed were ordinary high school kids, who happened to be locked up. Some were engaged, some weren't. Some were mild mannered, some weren't. Some seemed happy to see a fresh face, others were probably wondering who let me in the door. They were like kids you would see in almost any public high school classroom in America. In fact, they were much better than many I had encountered when I occasionally taught during law school. The thing that had the greatest impact on me -- for all the anticipation, security measures, guards, the experience was a pleasure.”

Echoing Dan, it has been my “pleasure” for these many years, to recruit teachers countywide to offer this collaboration called Law Week, to their students.

We are grateful to all our Law Week volunteers. A high school audience, no matter the school, can be tough! But your preparation and efforts to creatively engage, do in fact, resonate in those young minds.

-Rebecca Gallagher, SCOE education liaison to SCBA