Where do lawyers go when not in the courtroom or the Council chambers? Back to school, with the U.S. Constitution in hand. At least that’s what four attorneys for the City of Lakewood did recently at Bear Creek Elementary School in south Lakewood, where 120 fifth-grade students learned about different parts of the Constitution.
“The kids were, in a large part, engaged, willing to ask questions and they grasped the less-obvious concepts,” said Lakewood City Attorney Tim Cox. He and Deputy City Attorney Greg Graham covered the civil part of the Constitution such as the First Amendment rights of free speech and expression, while Chief Municipal Prosecutor Jenna Roth and Prosecutor Lauren Stanek covered the Fourth and Fifth amendments, which protect citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures and from self-incrimination, respectively.
While the subject matter is serious, Cox likes to impart some humor about it. “Free speech is probably the second-best thing about being an American,” he told the students. What is No. 1? “Baseball.”
The attorneys volunteered for the presentation as part of a collaboration among the City, the South Jeffco Rotary Club and the Liberty Day Institute. The institute is a nonpartisan Colorado-based nonprofit endorsed by the National Education Association that focuses on enhancing awareness about the foundations of our democracy.
Andy McKean, founder of the Liberty Day Institute, says he came up with the idea while doing a summer literacy program at a library after realizing none of his students understood why the library was closed for the Fourth of July. The Liberty Day program is connected to the state’s education standards, and it centers on a booklet featuring the full text of the Constitution and fact-filled flashcards. The program is “not meant to replace, but meant to enhance and supplement” the civics curriculum in schools, McKean says.
Cox finds constitutional examples on a near-daily basis in his work, so the challenge in presenting to the fifth-graders was zeroing in on specific topics for that age group. But because Graham has a son in fifth grade, the two had a head start in creating an age-appropriate session for the kids. They settled on focusing on freedom of expression issues.
One example they used concerned a recent change in the extent to which cities can regulate signs. Cox explained that local governments have typically adopted different sets of restrictions for commercial signs, real estate signs, election signs and so on. But a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling essentially ruled that local regulations must be “content-neutral.” That is, a city can restrict the material, number and size of signs on a property, but generally cannot treat signs differently based on the message on the signs. Cox told the group that the City’s Planning Department is working on revisions to its sign code to conform with the Supreme Court’s decision.
Another instance Cox covered with the students was public comment at meetings. “At public city council meetings, there’s opportunity for the public to speak. But there are time limits, content limits to some extent and, of course, people need to be polite,” he explained to the kids.
Cox looks forward to collaborating again on the program. “For those of us who participated, you have to do it more than once” to perfect it, just like “giving an argument in court,” he says.
McKean is certainly satisfied with the results, which includes a follow-up quiz for the students to see what they retained from the program. “Most of the students get most of the questions right,” he says.
McKean also is adamant about the importance of the community’s involvement in the program. When “volunteers visit the classes, that’s critical” to supporting teachers and enhancing student learning whether it’s elected officials, attorneys, police, members of service groups or others. McKean’s hope is that the volunteers stay connected with the school and continue to volunteer and provide enrichment programs after the Liberty Day presentation. The program also includes reaching out to governors, senators and representatives to record civics-oriented messages.
More than 20 years after forming, the institute operates in 24 states, sending some 55,000 pocket-sized booklets to 2,000 classrooms each year in Colorado alone. “In the past we’ve received grants to distribute materials to every fifth-grader in Colorado,” McKean says, noting regular support from the Daniels Fund. Having volunteer presenters “go in adds credibility and shows how in the real world the Constitution applies,” he elaborates, which is why he asked the City’s legal team to get involved.