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Constitution Day

Student—Supreme Court Judge Dialogue

On September 16, middle and high school students will visit courthouses across the country to commemorate Constitution Day and talk with federal judges about the issues raised in a nationwide satellite broadcast featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer. 

During the program—sponsored by Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center—educators and media groups and the sitting justices engage in a frank dialogue with Philadelphia-area students about interpreting and applying the Constitution, including timely questions about what it takes to overturn precedent and how this document allocates and balances powers between federal and state government.

“As our country grapples with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Constitution Day offers young people an opportunity to learn how a cornerstone of our democracy—the concept of federalism—shapes our lives,” said Dr. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Center. 

Nearly 1,200 educators and public officials have registered to use the pre-recorded program with the Supreme Court justices and the other free classroom-ready materials. In addition to the student-judge dialogues, secondary and higher education institutions are planning special classes, campus events and school- or district-wide broadcasts on September 16.  The Internet will also play a role, with students participating in interactive online sessions with judges and other public officials.

“We’re thrilled by the overwhelming interest in our balanced, thoughtful programs and delighted they will help so many students take part in the first national day devoted to teaching the next generation about the Constitution,” said Kathryn Kolbert, executive producer of NPR’s “Justice Talking” and JusticeLearning.org, a lead sponsor of the civics-education initiative.

The Penn Video Network (channel 24) will broadcast the programming to College Houses, GreekNet-wired fraternity and sorority chapter houses and more than 60 academic and administrative buildings on campus.

To help schools comply with the new federal requirement, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s NPR radio series “Justice Talking” partnered with the National Archives and Records Administration, the New York Times Knowledge Network, the America Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Bar Association Division of Public Education, the Center for Civic Education, the Close-UP Foundation, the Marshall-Brennan Legal Fellowship Program, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the National Conference on Citizenship, the National Constitution Center, National History Day, Presidential Classroom, Street Law, the Annenberg/CPB Foundation and C-SPAN. 

The Constitution Day Made Easy broadcasts and companion materials are made possible by the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands and the Foundation for the National Archives.

Constitution Day commemorates the signing of the United States Constitution by the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. Under a new provision introduced by Senator Robert Byrd, federal law requires all public and private institutions receiving federal aid to observe Constitution Day.

Penn Law's “Constitutional Literacy” Project with Philly Schools

The Law School, working with the Philadelphia public school system, will send Penn Law Public Service Program students this fall into 10 public high schools to teach a course in the essential elements of “constitutional literacy.” Law School Dean Michael A. Fitts said, “Understanding the Constitution should be an exciting and illuminating rite of passage for all young people in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Constitution.”   This program, the first in Philadelphia to provide a comprehensive curriculum to teach students about their rights and responsibilities under the Constitution, is an extension of Penn Law’s longstanding commitment to law-related education in high schools. The Marshall-Brennan project was launched in 1999 with the enthusiastic support of the widows of the late Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, who championed constitutional education for all Americans. Mrs. Thurgood Marshall will be an honored guest at the September 16 event to celebrate the inauguration of the Philadelphia program.

“It is exciting to see Penn Law students and faculty reaching out to our students and equipping them with the knowledge and understanding necessary to become active citizens and defenders of their constitutional rights,” said James Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission. “As a Penn Law alum and a member of its Board of Overseers, I am personally grateful and proud of Penn Law’s commitment to serving the children of Philadelphia. It is only in collaboration with our outstanding partners like the University of Pennsylvania Law School that we will be able to meet the challenges we face in public education.”

“No greater gift can come from one of the nation’s greatest legal institutions than the gift of constitutional knowledge,” said Paul Vallas, CEO of the School District of Philadelphia. “We are very grateful to the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project for giving our students the opportunity to learn from the finest legal scholars.”

The program kicks off on Constitution Day, September 16, when hundreds of students from The High School of Engineering and Science will hear Mary Beth Tinker, who made headlines in 1965 after she was suspended from junior high school in Des Moines, Iowa for wearing a black armband to school to protest the Vietnam War. Four years later, Ms. Tinker won a landmark free speech victory in the Supreme Court when Justice Fortas wrote for the majority that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Ms. Tinker, presently a nurse practitioner and a union organizer, is a member of the board of the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, the national network of law schools engaged in public constitutional education with which the new Penn Law project is affiliated.  

Also at the September 16 event, nine high school students will don the black robes of Supreme Court justices while others act as appellate advocates in a mock Supreme Court argument. The case concerns a high school student who was suspended for wearing a Pepsi t-shirt to school when the principal required all students to wear a Coke t-shirt as part of an effort to win free computers from Coca-Cola. Drawn from real events in Georgia, this case was developed by Jamin Raskin, a professor of constitutional law at the American University, Washington College of Law and director of its Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project. Students will examine the Tinker case and West Virginia v. Barnette, the Court’s 1943 decision invalidating compulsory Pledge of Allegiance rituals, before oral arguments begin.

The program will culminate April 1-2 when teams from across the country will gather in Washington, D.C. for a National Competition. They will address questions posed about Fourth Amendment standards for various types of searches in city public schools in which police have taken over the security functions for the school system.


  Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 3, September 13, 2005


September 13, 2005
Volume 52 Number 3


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