Res Gestae

In the five years I have served as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, I have gone into countless classrooms throughout the state of Indiana. Generally–despite media coverage that would lead one to believe that we are…

In the five years I have served as Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union, I have gone into countless classrooms throughout the state of Indiana. Generally–despite media coverage that would lead one to believe that we are raising a generation of drooling predators–I have encountered nice kids who know more about many things than my generation knew at the same age.

What they often don’t know is anything about the American legal system.

I usually begin classroom discussions with a simple question: "This is America, so the majority always rules. Right?" In virtually every instance, all of the hands in the classroom shoot up, and heads nod affirmatively. "So," I continue "You guys can vote to make me Episcopalian." This generally causes considerable confusion. They know they cannot take a vote to determine my religion, but they don’t know why. They have rarely been taught that the Bill of Rights limits both the power of government and the reach of popular majorities. To the extent that they know that the Bill of Rights protects, say, the right to free speech, they are unaware that the protection offered is only against government action. Most of them think of it as some inchoate "right" to be insulated from negative consequences when "doing their own thing." I recently got a call from a teenage boy who was incredulous when I told him that his right to express himself did not include a right to be hired by a fast food restuarant despite his visible and numerous tattoos.

As protective as most students are of certain of their rights, they can be frighteningly willing to cede others. At one school, a clean-cut and obviously bright young man couldn’t understand why anyone would have a problem with random drug testing of students. After all, if they hadn’t done anything wrong, they had nothing to fear. These students have never been taught that–unlike totalitarian regimes– our government is obliged to justify its searches.

In fact, few students are taught anything of consequence about the American system of law and government. A week devoted to "how a bill becomes a law" is about as much as most get. (A shining and all too rare exception is the We the People curriculum administered by Indiana University’s Center for Law Related Education and supported by the Indiana Bar Association.)

One of the compelling arguments for a system of free public education is that the schoolhouse operates as an incubator of civility and shared civic values. We are a diverse people; unlike more homogeneous nations, we do not share ethnicity, religion, skin color, folkways. What we do share — what we must continue to share — is a committment to the core principles enunciated by the remarkable group of men who gave us the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If the schools fail to teach our young people to understand and respect their constitutional heritage and the values upon which that heritage is based, they fail in their central mission.

The consequences of our failure to teach citizenship are far reaching. Pervasive misunderstandings of our most basic principles leads to a lack of respect — even contempt — for law and for lawyers. As we graduate citizens who do not understand either the rights or the duties that accompany citizenship, we erode the social compact that makes effective and democratic governing possible.

Lawyers may debate the extent or meaning of this judicial principle or that constitutional "penumbra," but all of us have pledged to uphold the core principles of our constitutional system. That pledge necessarily includes our obligation to pass our founders’ vision to succeeding generations. Lawyers have an obligation to ensure that the public schools are engaging in effective citizenship education. I am always taken aback when people accuse the courts, or the ACLU, or lawyers generally of "undermining values," because our shared mission is to teach, defend and protect the values incorporated in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The Indiana Bar Association, like its counterparts across the country, engages in citizenship education. But those efforts compete with numerous others for our attention and our resources. As a profession, we need to take a hard look at the extent of the problem and determine whether we are doing all we can. In the short term, it is in our professional self-interest to encourage respect for the law. In the long term, what is at stake is nothing less than our survival as a nation based on respect for liberty, limited government and the rule of law.???