Arguing free press in real courtroom (from our June print edition)


Ava Karame

Students reviewed the First Amendment and related court decisions as they prepared their Constitution Works arguments.

BROOKLYN — Constitution Works is an annual fifth grade project and field trip where students research a mock court case and argue it before Supreme Court justices (also students) at the Federal courthouse here.

The First Amendment is what the fifth grade focuses on in this program. It says, “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

During the trip, the students will be going to the federal court and each student will have one of the following jobs: Supreme Court justice, lawyer for the U.S. government and lawyer for a newspaper. The fifth grade teacher who is leading the justices is Piera Hattar. The fifth grade teacher coaching the lawyers for the newspaper is Jeneane Salerno. Principal Tonya Wilson is in charge of the government lawyers.

The case is about biological warfare research and whether the made-up newspaper, the Denver Dispatch, has the right to publish an article about it. The justices will get the final say on which side they agree with. The two fifth grade classes will be split into two courtrooms.

Something that not many people know is that Mrs. Hatter was the person who brought Constitution Works to the school. When she worked at her old school, she really liked the idea of program and was inspired to introduce it at Colonial.

In the first week of classroom work, the students were given an introduction to Constitution Works. They were also provided a book to help guide them. The fifth graders read a few cases that might possibly help them when it comes to the arguing the actual case.

In the middle of May, the students applied for the job that they would prefer the most. For example, Kellen O’Neil applied for U.S. government lawyer as his first choice, justice as his second and his last choice was lawyer for the Denver Dispatch.

There is a head lawyer for each side. The head lawyer does the opening and closing statements. There are also chief justices for each courtroom. For newspaper group A, Eloise McGibbon is head lawyer, while Finbar Doyle is head lawyer for group B. For government group A, Ava Karame is head lawyer, along with Kellen O’neill. For justices group A, Gavin Brown is chief justice, and Alex Dolen is chief justice for group B.

“I’m a little nervous,” said Kellen O’Neil. “Number one, I have no older sibling. I think both sides have a good chance.”

Heather Reische said, “So in Constitution Works, I am a Denver Dispatch lawyer. For Constitution Works I am nervous that we will lose. I’m scared we won’t have enough information. My favorite part about Constitution Works is making our arguments, because you get to do arguments in an actual courtroom.”

All parents are welcome to attend the court sessions, and if a student’s parents or parent are attorneys, they can come beforehand and help with the arguments. Some of the students who have parents who are lawyers include Finbar Doyle, Audrey Davis, Mathew Dervishi and Kellen.

Gavin Brown said his favorite part about being chief justice is “banging the gavel and helping my fellow justices, but I wasn’t going to be mad if I wasn’t chief justice.”

Sean McGovern said he’s not nervous for the arguments. “I like reading the cases.” Sean said he thinks the hardest part will be “making an argument to the justice person.”

After the court case, all the fifth graders will get to go to a pizzeria in Brooklyn. The students will most likely get back at the end of the day, considering the court case is around a little more than an hour long.

The Justice Resource Center administers The Constitution Works program.