Freedom of Speech, Search and Seizures Debated at Chatsworth High School

Students participate in 11th annual Dialogues on Freedom launched by a Supreme Court judge after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Chatsworth High School seniors took part in a debate about the balance between personal freedom and security as part of the 11th annual Dialogues on Freedom. The program is sponsored by the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Los Angeles Superior Court and Los Angeles Unified School District.

Two private-practice attorneys facilitated the discussion during teacher Ed LeVine’s Thursday sixth-period, advanced-placement government class, leaving students with food for thought.

Students were presented with several scenarios, based on situations they may encounter at school or at home.

They mulled the issues and came to conclusions as to whether first and fourth amendment rights, free speech and unreasonable search and seizure respectively, were trampled upon and what would be an acceptable path to resolve those issues.

One of the scenarios involved suspending a student who answered a cell phone in class knowing it violates school policy, even though it was two assistant principals who called from a lost phone.

Chatsworth High School has a policy that cell phones are to be shut off during class and out of sight.

Cheating on tests, texting during class and not paying attention to the instructor were main reasons the school has that policy, as do other schools around the nation. At Chatsworth, the consequences vary depending on the number of previous violations a student might have.

“She received a call in class. She broke the rule and deserved consequences,” said one student who identified himself as Matthew. “If the school allows her to talk, people will break the rule again and again. She sets an example.”

Another student said although the student used the cell phone, the punishment was harsh. “She should have had her phone taken away, or got detention,” a female student said. “She’s missing school time and can’t learn. And the administration used that to trap others.”

Student, Hector, called it an invasion of privacy.

Another student cited probable cause to search for the cell phone.  She said the fourth amendment assures people will be safe against unreasonable search and seizure.

Attorney Phil Marr told the students the fourth amendment has exceptions, such as the use of search warrants.

“There are strong protections for people unless you are in high school,” Marr said. “Education is supposed to be a care-giver. Schools can modify the rules.”

Angela Rooney, an attorney and chair of Dialogues on Freedom, told students they have rights, but schools have a duty to keep them safe and in a good learning environment.

“It boils down to was the search reasonable? Did it go too far,” Rooney asked. “There’s no right answer. The facts are presented to the court and the judge makes a factual determination if the (school’s) action was reasonable.”

LeVine has participated in the school-wide event since it began after the 9-11 terrorist attacks on the East Coast.

“I’m happy for my students to listen to others present their points of view … and hear people talk, these experts provide information … and references that are different than mine,” LeVine said.

The program was launched in 2002 by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy and is designed to provide students with opportunities to discuss the concepts of freedom, law and justice with judges and attorneys.

Last year more than 115 judges and attorneys, 21 schools and more than 2,600 students participated in the program.

At Chatsworth High, the AP students discussed 10 p.m. curfews for those under 18 years old.

They learned about whether a police officer has the right to pull over a driver and search the car's trunk and glove compartment.

They were given facts and outcomes of some court cases across the nation.

In one of the scenarios, a student was suspended for wearing a major league baseball team jacket because its colors were those of rival gangs, despite it being the only jacket she owned and she wasn’t a gang member.

They talked about civil liberties of the rich versus the middle and lower classes.

They discussed freedom of speech and the schools’ role in keeping students safe without trampling on their rights.

“Does the law overreach and not fix the problem,” Rooney asked. “What do you propose?”

When discussing students having late-night parties when their parents are away, the group talked about applying existing laws, targeting the troublemakers and public intoxication.

They learned cases can be challenged in a trial court, or an appeal court and eventually the Supreme Court if necessary.

“These are important (issues) to know because, One: you can follow the law if you chose and, Two: you can learn about a curfew and if it’s overreaching you have the power to change it,” Rooney said. “It’s important to know your rights."

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