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Slacking kids? Not at this main event

Bishop Gorman High School swept to a 5-1 victory last Saturday, carrying the game to their opponents with force, finesse and brilliant execution of their game plan, revealing preparation in the fundamentals and enough agility to react to surprises and adverse conditions on the field.

The crowded stadium went wild as the overpowering victory propelled Bishop Gorman into the state championship.

Well, actually, no. There was no stadium. There was not much of a crowd — except for a couple of hundred of competitors from area high schools, as well as their teachers and a few of the local judges, lawyers, professors, teachers, journalists and legislators who judged the competition.

There were no helmets, no sneakers, no bats nor balls.

It was the Southern Nevada competition called "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution." Since 1987 the Center for Civil Education has provided training and material for teachers and students on core constitutional principles. This culminates with a series of simulated congressional hearings in which students "testify" before panels of judges.

They must demonstrate their understanding of the topic and defend their stances with their knowledge of historic events, legal precedent and applicable current issues.

Seven high schools participated in Saturday’s round of competition at Basic High School to determine who would represent Congressional Districts 1 and 3. A similar competition took place in Reno to see who would represent Congressional District 2. A winner and runner-up in each district advance to statewide competition here in February.

U.S. District Judge Philip Pro was the coordinator of the competition in Southern Nevada.

Oh, yes, I was one of the 24 judges.

The students competed non-stop for 2½ hours, presenting to, and responding to questions from, four-judge panels on six topics, ranging from the philosophical foundation of the American political system; to the values, principles and protections of the Bill of Rights; and the roles of citizens in our democracy.

My group judged each team on what rights are protected by the Bill of Rights. I was joined by District Judge Elissa Cadish, Deputy Public Defender Nancy Lemcke and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Pocker.

There was simply too much going on to provide a play-by-play of the morning’s competition, but a little color commentary might be warranted on the winning team’s effort.

My team of judges chose to query the students on the role of the First Amendment, because there are so many current events that involve the five rights delineated in the First. (I congratulated the students on being able to address all five, because a Pew Center survey found only a 10th of a percent of adult Americans can even name all five. Can you?)

The topics could have included current events such as WikiLeaks, Westboro Baptist funeral protests, proposed cyberbullying laws after a gay student committed suicide at Rutgers University, the right of corporations to engage in political free speech, the right of judges to speak openly about their own political campaigns, the right to have commercial messages in murals, whether public campaign financing chills free speech, Nativity scenes, the right to sell videos of animal cruelty, and on and on.

As I knew would happen, the student competitors in trying to explain what limitations there are on the First Amendment almost invariably quoted from Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion in a World War I case in which socialist Charles Schenck was convicted of sedition.

Holmes famously wrote: "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic."

This was followed shortly by the second most quoted phrase about a clear and present danger: "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

But quoting that case is like quoting Plessy v. Ferguson, which gave us the doctrine of separate but equal, when discussing civil rights today.

Even Holmes later softened his stance.

But Bishop Gorman’s team did their preparation and cited subsequent rulings.

I wanted to go over and high-five Matthew Shoemaker when he cited the two-pronged test from Brandenburg v. Ohio.

In that case, the court in a per curiam ruling wrote that "the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."

Then Kylie Shaw cited Gitlow v. New York, a double sending Matthew home for an RBI.

In that case Holmes did not back off his "clear and present danger" stance, but offered some clarification: "Eloquence may set fire to reason. But whatever may be thought of the redundant discourse before us it had no chance of starting a present conflagration. If in the long run the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their way."

You see, what few of the students understood, when I asked, was that Schenck had simply distributed pamphlets arguing that the draft was a violation of the 13th Amendment prohibition against slavery and indentured servitude, a fairly reasonable and rational assertion. Additionally, the prosecution presented no evidence Schenck’s constitutional argument had even a nugatory effect on anyone.

As time ran out, Gorman’s David Abdou hit a free speech home run. He said that our government is made by the people, and the people have the right, if they don’t like it, to alter or abolish it.

At the end of the day, Bishop Gorman won in five of the six constitutional issues addressed. They and Boulder City High School advanced to state competition representing District 3. College of Southern Nevada High School-West took first place in District 1 and will be joined at state by Canyon Springs High School.

There may have been winners, but there were no losers. All of the students engaged in a lively and meaningful discussion of our civic heritage, our rights and civic responsibilities to play a role in maintaining a just and equitable society through thoughtful participation in our governance.

The crowd should have gone wild.

Thomas Mitchell is the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s senior opinion editor.

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