- The Washington Times - Monday, June 12, 2000

In most schools I go to, the Constitution is only words on a page if the students see it at all. But once, in Miami, I was asked to bring those words off the page before a large group of mostly black and Hispanic students. Before I began, their teacher warned me not to be disappointed in their indifference because only music and clothes mattered to them.

I told them stories about how Americans fought for and gained our liberties. One of the main causes of the American Revolution, I said, was the furious frustration of the colonists, whose homes and businesses were raided at will by British troops looking for contraband and turning everything upside down, including the early Americans. And that's why, I added, we have a Fourth Amendment to the Bill of Rights. I also told of cases in which students had gone to court to establish their constitutional rights.

They listened intently, and at the end there was a standing ovation. Not for me, but for their discovery of America.

But most students in the nation are as ignorant as the general public is of their constitutional liberties and responsibilities. Not knowing their own rights, they are indifferent to the abuse of the constitutional liberties of others. But, at last, there is now an extraordinarily clear and compelling book about the Constitution for high school students, as well as for their teachers and librarians.

"We the Students: Supreme Court Cases For and About Students" is published in paperback by Congressional Quarterly in Washington, and is co-sponsored by the Supreme Court Historical Society. (I believe it is the most important book the society, of which I am a member, has ever sent forth because its young readers will, in years to come, spread the word about why and how we have more freedom if we use it than any other country.)

The author of the book is Professor Jamin B. Raskin of American University's Washington College of Law. The range of Supreme Court decisions on student constitutional rights is all here: the right to speak and not to speak; freedom of the student press; free exercise of religion and non-establishment of religion in the schools; the limits of searches of students and their belongings; the due-process rights of students; school segregation and integration; harassment by teachers and by students; and a section on abortion and birth control.

Mr. Raskin even tells students how to brief a case as they go to court. He doesn't include what Justice William Brennan used to advise constitutional lawyers in his later years on the Supreme Court: "If your state constitution has stronger rights and liberties than the federal Constitution, do not include any reference to the federal Constitution in your brief. If you do, Chief Justice Rehnquist will snatch the case away from the state court, and you may lose."

Mr. Raskin was not content to enclose these student rights and liberties in a book. He has developed a constitutional law curriculum based on "We the Students" that he intends to make available to high schools across the nation.

Already, students in District of Columbia high schools are discovering that as Chief Justice John Marshall said at the dawn of the American republic "the Constitution is a living document." As The Washington Times reported in December 1999, teams of American University law students Marshall-Brennan Fellows are in a number of Washington high schools telling students why they are Americans.

The Raskin Awakening is sorely needed throughout the country because a national test last year revealed that, as Andrea Billups noted in The Washington Times, "One-third of America's high school seniors lack even a basic knowledge of how their government is run." It's even worse than that, as I can testify after visiting high schools in a number of states through the years.

One of the most enthusiastic tutors joining the Brennan-Marshall Fellows in the "We the Students" program is Kenneth Starr, who teaches once a week at Anacostia High School in Southeast.

I doubt that many or any of the White House crew and their allies in the media who demonized Mr. Starr during the impeachment process have ever been in that high school, which is in a largely black part of Washington, let alone devoted time to making the Constitution come off the pages for these students. It's just as well. I would hate to have the Constitution interpreted by those malign spinners.

In a recent conversation, Mr. Starr sounded delighted with his current role, and pointed out that "the students are very sensitive to issues of order and an ordered society because many of them live where they need more order, a more structured environment."

He takes them to hear oral arguments at the Supreme Court and, he tells me, he wishes the court would open up those arguments to the public by broadcasting them on television to the nation. So do I.

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