Holland & Knight (Jacksonville) hosts a program called Learning for Life, for high school students interested in law. The firm invites speakers with various legal backgrounds to share their experiences with the students. I had the privilege of being invited to provide remarks to this group last night. Most of the students were freshmen and they were impressive.
I gave them a short reading assignment in advance. The American University Law Review's 2009 Symposium commemorated the 40th anniversary of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District. Mary Beth Tinker contributed an inspiring foreword. Tinker wrote:
I have come to view the Tinker decision in the context of children’s rights and international human rights, and decided that if democracy means anything, it means that the ones affected by policies—including young people—should have a voice in those policies. By sharing my experience and the experiences of other youths, I found that I could empower students to be active participants in democracy, taking steps that may not always be popular, but could have important lasting effects and ultimately change history.
Tinker’s brief essay provided a good place to start our conversation and my theme: we live in a self-governing society and the youth have a voice. One student commented that he admired Tinker’s perseverance and ongoing dedication to her cause. Before discussing specific areas of law, I offered them four keys to empowerment: Read; Think for yourself; Engage in critical, analytical thought; and Question Everything.
The specific areas of law I covered were net neutrality, electoral reform and copyright. While I am sure some of the material went over their heads, I am certain that students are capable of understanding quite a lot given the chance. For example, I believe I successfully conveyed a sense of regulatory capture through this Q&A:
Me: What is your most difficult class?
M: What would you do if you could write the exam?
S: I would probably create an exam with questions that I could answer.
M: That makes sense. Do you think that is right?
To be sure, it’s not a perfect analogy, but I believe it conveys the idea that relational structures exist for a reason and that they can be abused.
Also impressively, a freshmen student was able to provide a good explanation of the how the Electoral College works. (Because most of these students were four to six years old in 2000, I thought I’d better ask if they knew who the presidential candidates were in 2000. At least one student knew the answer.)
When I discussed copyright, I explained the purpose of the copyright and patent clause to raise the issue of how long one must have exclusive rights to incentivize the creation of new works. After showing the actual text of the clause on a powerpoint, I attempted to translate that text in the next slide: “We want people to write new books and create new inventions because it serves the public interest. Thus, we will allow writers and inventors an exclusive right to make money off their work, but only for a limited time. Then, the whole public can use it.”
When I asked for how long they would need exclusive rights to be incentivized to create new works, the answers ranged from one year to a few years, a far cry from the life of the author plus 70 years after death that currently exists. After showing them the current duration, I showed them that the original duration under the Copyright Act of 1790 was 14 years. When I asked why this might have changed, it provided an opportunity to weave in the regulatory capture theme.
I hope the students enjoyed the experience and that my remarks help avoid what frustrates Calvin and many of us:
Today’s music is Peter Tosh’s, “Can’t Blame the Youth,” set to a user-generated collage video.