In Michigan, an advocate for students’ First Amendment rights

Once a week, Lauren Mercado teaches classes of Michigan high school students about the First Amendment. Mercado teaches as part of Michigan State University’s First Amendment Law Clinic, the only law clinic of its kind devoted to student First Amendment issues. (Photo courtesy of Michigan State University College of Law)

MICHIGAN — When Lauren Mercado teaches high school students about First Amendment law, she always sees wide eyes when she starts talking about Facebook. 

“Immediately their faces light up when you teach them about social media,” said the law student and member of Michigan State’s First Amendment Law Clinic. “They want to know what relates to them.”

In her weekly classes with students across the state, Mercado often pulls up students’ own Facebook pages to show how public pages can be. It leads into deeper conversations about what types of speech is protected by the First Amendment, and what isn’t.

“I think it’s really important to teach high school students because they don’t know they have legal rights,” Mercado said

Since 2011, the Michigan State University College of Law’s First Amendment Law Clinic has offered workshops and legal advice to high school students and advisers across the state. The clinic covers a variety of First Amendment law issues: libel, privacy, defamation, copyright, open records, freedom of information and cases involving speech on social media

For the law students, it’s a chance to get experience in First Amendment law cases as well as learn teaching skills

The clinic got its start in 2004 as an externship with one or two students a semester. The program’s first big case was representing a publisher and a Muslim woman who were being sued by the woman’s family for libel after she wrote a memoir about her life, said Nancy Costello, the program’s co-director.

The externs did the bulk of the work under attorney supervision and ultimately won their part of the case, earning the law school’s attention, Costello said. After that success, the law school’s dean encouraged Costello to pursue the idea of an expanded First Amendment Clinic

It was an obvious fit to partner with the Michigan State journalism school and the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association, housed at Michigan State

“To have a synergy between the school of journalism, MIPA and the law college was a natural way to have cross-campus collaboration and it would help students, high school and college students that were facing censorship and other FOIA questions,” said Jane Briggs-Bunting, the director of the school of journalism at the time who helped Costello develop the program

Now, the program has between 10 and 16 law students a semester. Students fill out an in-depth application about their background in First Amendment issues and teaching experience, Costello said. Once in the program, students commit to either one or two semester’s worth of clinical practice

Because First Amendment cases rarely wind up in court, Costello decided to make the program more of a practical program. In addition to extensively studying First Amendment law and writing legal briefs, law students in the program are taught effective teaching methods that they then take out into the field.

Law students in the program are required to develop comprehensive lesson plans in pairs, and practice their plans before their peers before setting out on the road to teach high school students. They travel across the state, teaching two or three classes each week. 

The clinic tries to cover topics relevant to students, said Brett Sachs, a former clinic member. The students also look at Supreme Court rulings that apply to students, like Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier and Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

Those are the same topics advisers would normally cover, but students seem to respond better to the guest speakers, Marilyn Hess, a journalism adviser at Plainwell High School in Plainwell, Mich

The weekly sessions tend to be highly interactive with Jeopardy-style games, Facebook groups, blogs, music clips and YouTube videos to demonstrate case law.

“I was just so impressed at the way they were able to relate this stuff to the kids’ level,” Hess said.

Mercado said it can be difficult to teach the concepts to high school students but that it’s good preparation.

“Nothing’s harder than teaching high school students the law,” Mercado said. “They’re extremely bright so you have to be prepared. If you can teach it to high school students you can teach it to anyone.”

Former clinic member and third year law student Katherine Wheat agreed. She said the clinic helped her because it required her to learn the subject very well herself.

“Anytime you are teaching something, you are going to learn it a lot more than when you’re just studying it from the book,” Wheat said. “When you’re standing up in front of an audience and you’re actually being asked questions — especially at any type of secondary education level because they have tons of questions — you have to be on your game.”

The lessons help provide a framework for students to understand the laws and how they’re applied. The classes often lead to discussions about ways to approach school administrators on censorship issues.

“It helps to empower students but they know they have to back it up with some kind of knowledge of why they can print that or why they can print somebody saying this or that, whether it be in the school’s favor or not,” Wheat said.

Plainwell High School senior Aaron Olson said it was great having someone so close in age to come in and present. The lessons help the student journalists stay within the law, he said.

“They taught me what I can or cannot do, and that’s actually saved my butt quite a few times,” Olson said.

The classroom experience taught clinic members how to adapt quickly as well as change and correctly quickly in order to help students grasp concepts, Sachs said.

The law students are encouraged to come up with new ways to connect with students, said Caroline Kinsey, a former clinic member. Many tried to keep the conversation going after classes by posting on class Facebook pages, she said.

The day after lessons, Kinsey and her teaching partner posted questions and gave the student who answered first correctly a prize. Costello is really supportive of new teaching methods, she said.

“You come to her with a really new or unique idea and she’ll say ‘alright let’s do it,’” Kinsey said. “She really is really always excited to help us adapt our learning as technology changes.”

Advisers feel comfortable using the clinic since the program works just with Michigan high schools and has become very familiar with the problems they face, said Kimberly Kozian, the newspaper adviser at L’Anse Creuse High School-North.

Clinic members also investigate claims of censorship throughout the state and write memos for particular issues students encounter. They analyze the objectiveness of the claims to determine whether students have a First Amendment violation claim, Sachs said.

Reversing or limiting the application of Hazelwood was of the main reasons the clinic was established, Costello said. Hazelwood has been used by schools to censor student speech produced as part of a class, as many student newspapers are.

Costello said she’s always wanted to take on a case that would test Hazelwood, but that finding one is a challenge because cases involving high school censorship rarely make it to court. Because students eventually graduate, often the issue becomes moot before the court can hear the case, she said.

Still, Costello said the clinic is always watchful for cases that could challenge Hazelwood.

“We are waiting and I someday hope there might be a case that we can take that far to challenge Hazelwood,” Costello said

By Bailey McGowan, SPLC staff writer.