November 2013 • Vol. 33 No. 11 | An E-Publication of the Los Angeles County Bar Association

Dialogues on Freedom Inspires Students to Explore Law's Impact on Their Lives

As members of the legal profession, we understand how the Constitution and the law impact our lives on a daily basis. But for many of the nearly 2,000 students at 16 Los Angeles Unified School District high schools, this can sometimes seem like an abstract concept that doesn’t directly impact them at school.

On October 23, 2013, nearly 100 sitting judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and attorneys who practice in other areas of law participated in the 12th Annual Dialogues on Freedom, a program designed to motivate students to discuss the concepts of freedom, law, and justice in their daily lives. (Attorneys Allan B. Gelbard and Kristen Hunsberger are shown at right leading a discussion at Monroe High School in North  Hills.)

Dialogues on Freedom presents students with a series of prompts based on situations they may encounter at school or at home, and asks them if the teachers, principals, city officials, or police have the right and obligation to intervene in situations the students view as an infringement on their personal freedom.

There are complex legal issues at the heart of each of the prompts, and there is no right or wrong answer. This year’s prompts were based on the following scenarios:

Harlem Shake. A student videotaped other students doing the Harlem Shake during the last 30 seconds of class, a dance that some (mostly parents) feel is vulgar, while others (mostly students) feel is just a dance. The video shot in the classroom was posted on YouTube, and the students were suspended. Did the administration have the right to suspend the students?

Breathalyzer Test for 13-Year-Old. Police administered a breathalyzer test without a warrant or parents’ permission to a group of students accused of drinking while on a school-sponsored picnic. Did the authorities violate the students’ Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure?

Facebook Warning. Close to Halloween, a student posted the following warning on her Facebook page: "Can’t wait until tomorrow. The school will never be the same. Fear will reign throughout the campus. Blood will flow in the hallways." The posting was brought to the attention of the school principal, who immediately suspended the student until a full investigation into the matter could be undertaken. The student stated that the posting referred to Zombie costumes she and her friends were planning to wear for a Halloween assembly and that they would be carrying jars of ketchup the other students would think was blood. Did the school overreact?

Student GPS Tracking. To curtail truancy, students at one high school are required to wear a Smart ID Card containing a GPS locator chip that allows school staff to track their location on and off campus. If they do not attend school, a truancy officer tracks students, picks them up, and takes them to school. One student objected to wearing the badge, among other reasons, based on her religious beliefs that the presence of the chip in the badge “is the mark of the beast” as foretold in the Bible. Although she was never late to any of her classes, she was prohibited from entering the cafeteria or voting for homecoming court. She continued to refused to use the ID Card and was ultimately expelled. Did the school violate her constitutional rights?

Spyware on School Computers. A school laptop’s TheftTrack system automatically activates when a high school student takes the computer home without permission or paying the $55 insurance fee, unaware that this was a violation of the school’s policy. Once activated, the TheftTrack system takes photographs through a Webcam to identify the person in possession of the computer. In this instance, the TheftTrack system captured the student participating in “questionable behavior,” and in particular, popping “pills” at home. The assistant principal informed the student that he was witnessed engaging in an activity that violated both the law and the school’s no-tolerance drug policy. Notwithstanding the student’s claim that he was “popping Mike & Ike” candy, not drugs, he was suspended for three days. Did the school violate his privacy by taking images of him in his room?

Dialogues on Freedom was started in 2002 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and continues today as a partnership between the Los Angeles County Bar Association, Los Angeles Superior Court, and Los Angeles Unified School District.

The high schools participating in this year’s program are: Banning, Belmont, Chatsworth, Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, Dorsey, Eagle Rock, Leadership in Entertainment and Media Arts at Lincoln, Mendez Learning Center, Monroe, Narbonne, North Hollywood, Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, Torres University, Venice, West Adams Prep, and Wilson; and schools in the Claremont, Montebello, and Antelope Valley Union school districts.

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