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ACLU Legend Teaches Law Elective: Social Justice Meets Civil Discourse at Great Books

Written by Great Books on Thursday, October 4, 2018

ACLU Legend Teaches Law Elective: Social Justice Meets Civil Discourse at Great Books

It wasn’t the typical opening to a Great Books elective seminar.

“Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the court,” said the Great Books student. He stood firmly at the front of the classroom, slowly scanning the faces of his peers as he leaned his body forward and placed a clenched fist on the podium, for dramatic effect. All that was missing was the classic wooden gavel. 

And while a chorus of excited giggles ensued, it was the wide smiles spreading across the faces of these eager students that said they were ready to talk about all things law.

Civil Liberties Examined

This was the scene at Great Books first special elective - Inside the Supreme Court: Hot Topics in Law at THE 2018 Amherst  program. The class was led by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) legend, Chris Hansen. As an American civil rights attorney for 40 years, Hansen has argued multiple cases in the U.S. Supreme Court including AMP v. Myriad Genetics (2013) and ACLU v. Reno (1997). He retired as Senior National Staff Counsel in 2013 as the ACLU’s longest-serving attorney.

This specialized law elective was created by Hansen specifically for Great Books to focus on the inner workings of the United States Supreme Court and constitutional law. It was offered exclusively to high school students in our senior program.

But would a civil liberties lawyer be able to inspire our literary group of bright, young minds? The answer was a resounding YES! It was easy to see Hansen had an enthusiastic group of students, excited to talk about all facets of the law. This was made more evident each day, when Hansen would give the final nod of approval for the class to officially begin the much anticipated ‘mock court.’

Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! 

The elective consisted of a daily, two-hour seminar, Monday through Friday, where students discussed a different “hot topic” in law. These five hot topics included: free speech rights, gun rights, religious rights, LGBTQ rights, and economic rights. Each day the law was dissected, analyzed, and fervently discussed, using its corresponding constitutional amendment as a textual reference.

In the first half of class, Hansen introduced the constitutional amendment at hand, explained its origins, and let students discuss how they believe the amendment both can and should be interpreted.  In the second half of the class, Hansen presented a controversial scenario for U.S. Supreme ‘mock court,’—often based upon a real-life court case. Then two students were named the plaintiffs to defend the argument at hand while another two students were chosen as defendants. The remaining students in the classroom became the de facto court of chief justices.

Great Books staff took part in the class to represent the controversial party in each scenario, including:

  • The concerned suburban mother who dropped her son off at school with a gun holstered to her side
  • The CEO of a clothing store who refused to hire non-Christians as employees

Each day staff members would sit in front of this circle full of poignant, inquisitive, and energetic teenagers and brace for the ardent unleashing of their brilliant questions and ideas. Some would say it was the hot seat, but those who sat there said they had the best seat in the house—center stage to behold "the civil discourse magic" that would soon unfold before their eyes.

Teaching Law With Purpose

Hansen took his role of lawyer/teacher very seriously. The moment a student took to the podium, they addressed the court with those famous nine words—“Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the court,”—then it was on!

The student chief justices were encouraged and expected to interrupt the justice at the podium with a question as soon as one came to mind. This, in turn, forced students to think on their feet, answer tough questions, and continue defending their previously-formed arguments swiftly and with great poise. No hand-raising, no prepared notes or insights, just pure energy-driven debate and zealous discussion.

Those who witnessed the classroom dynamics and overall growth these students experienced were in awe of what unfolded. These young men and women not only asked hard-hitting questions of each other but they also took the time to really hear the answers and solutions that evolved.

There were many outstanding questions that arose from this elective:

  • How can a 231-year-old Constitution be interpreted so literally in a society as modernized and advanced as ours?
  • If we are one of the most wasteful nations, how is it that we are unable to feed all of our people?
  • At what point does the protection of individual rights become discrimination against a group of others?
  • What can our country and constitution learn from the laws and rights of other nations?
  • And, why can’t the Supreme Court begin with Ms. Chief Justice and may it please the court?

Reflections on Critical Thinking & The Law

There were many additional moments of inspiration. The drive and curiosity of two particular boys in the class who would fearlessly raise their hands to defend the side of the gun-bearing mother when no one else would and the young woman who started class on Wednesday supporting the argument against the Christian-hiring CEO, only to humbly reconsider the opinions and points shared throughout the afternoon and change her stance.

Many of the students took to the podium, their voices often times leading and guiding discussions. Even more impressive was the comradery that everyone shared. Any time a particularly popular or intriguing comment was made during the court session, the sound of fingers snapping echoed off the walls—a universal Great Books sign of support, encouragement, and agreement. When court sessions seemed to get heated, encouragement was made by the campers themselves to bring discourse back into focus. Students who intensely disagreed about a stance on an issue during class would be joking with one another during a break, or discussing how excited they were to perform together at open mic night later in the evening, arm-in-arm as they exited the classroom.

Hansen structured and led this class to push boundaries, encourage critical thinking, and promote civil discourse amongst peers. Opinions were challenged, minds were changed mid-argument, and sometimes the class came to contrary conclusions or no conclusion at all—and it was okay.

Those who observed Hansen’s class said this specialized elective brought a sense of satisfaction and faith in the perceptive and thoughtful consideration of these 20 students. The world may seem to be a divisive place but there is a great comfort knowing the future is in the good hands of Great Books’ bright young minds.                                                                                              

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