By Judge Tom Jacobs, author of What Are My Rights? Q&A About Teens and the Law (Revised & Updated 4th Edition)
The rights and responsibilities bestowed on our children under the Constitution and Bill of Rights are sometimes exercised in surprising ways. Does the free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment apply to people under 18? Do the freedom to assemble and the right to express your grievances against the government apply only to adults? Recent examples of student action on significant issues speak for themselves. These stories can be great starting points for class discussions.
Fighting for Changes to Gun Laws
Since February 14, 2018, students nationwide have risen to answer a call to action. That day witnessed a massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, when a 19-year-old former student entered the school and murdered 14 students and 3 teachers with an assault rifle.
On the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shootings, students across the country walked out of class for 17 minutes as a silent demonstration in honor of the victims. With a few exceptions, there were no consequences imposed on the students. Most educators respected students for exercising their freedom of expression.
A group of Parkland students then organized the March for Our Lives in Washington, D.C. About 800,000 people converged on the capitol on March 24, 2018, to call for reasonable gun control measures, with thousands more attending shadow marches in most states. For the first time in memory, students directed their comments to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and to politicians who take donations from the NRA while steering clear of attempts at any form of gun control.
Former President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama wrote a letter to the Parkland students which read:
We wanted to let you know how inspired we have been by the resilience, resolve, and solidarity that you have all shown in the wake of unspeakable tragedy.
Not only have you supported and comforted each other, but you’ve helped awaken the conscience of the nation and challenged decision-makers to make the safety of our children the country’s top priority.
Throughout our history, young people like you have led the way in making America better. There may be setbacks; you may sometimes feel like progress is too slow in coming. But we have no doubt you are going to make an enormous difference in the days and years to come, and we will be there for you.
Since the march in Washington, D.C., the Parkland students have concentrated on getting out the vote for the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 presidential election. They spent the summer of 2018 traveling the country speaking and registering new voters. They focused on the youth vote, the sheer numbers of which could turn into a strong voting bloc.
Sadly, two Parkland students recently chose to end their lives to end their personal pain from losing classmates and friends. It’s an awful reminder that the pain and grief from tragedy can be powerful and long-lasting, and while becoming active can be a way to cope for some, all students need our support and attention.
Suing the Government Over Climate
Another issue of national and global concern is the environment. Does your fundamental right to life, liberty, and property include the right to a stable climate system? In 2015, 21 young Americans (ages 8 to 19) sued the United States, alleging the government knowingly contributed to the dangerous level of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. They seek a court order requiring the federal government to implement a climate recovery program reducing emissions to a safe level by the year 2100. Attempts since 2015 to get the lawsuit dismissed have failed. A federal judge ruled on one motion, stating, “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.”
Nineteen-year-old Vic Barrett is one of the plaintiffs in the case. He is a great example of a youth activist using the power of his voice to make a difference and, ultimately, change the direction of our climate crisis. “I didn’t know I had the power and the ability to sue the federal government,” Vic said when speaking to the United Nations about the lawsuit back in 2015. “This lawsuit is about showing that youths are the ones that are going to be making the change.”
Striking for Climate
Another student leader in this cause is 15-year-old Greta Thunberg of Sweden. She started School Strike for Climate in 2018. Frustrated by the lack of attention paid to the threat of global warming, she set out to educate the public by setting up an information table outside the Swedish parliament. She cut classes on Fridays to catch politicians during the day, and her #FridaysForFuture protest went viral. In fact, on March 15, 2019, her actions inspired a worldwide protest for climate change that saw students from over 100 countries, including the United States, participating.
Age Is Not a Restriction
Encourage young people to become aware of the laws that apply to any situation and to speak up for themselves or others. One person can make a difference and effect positive change at a school, in a community, or even globally. For more inspiring stories about young people working for positive change, check out “Five Young People Creating a Better World.”
Thomas A. Jacobs, J.D., was an Arizona Assistant Attorney General from 1972 to 1985 where he practiced criminal and child welfare law. He was appointed to the Maricopa County Superior Court in 1985 where he served as a judge pro tem and commissioner in the juvenile and family courts until his retirement in 2008. He also taught juvenile law for 10 years as an adjunct professor at the Arizona State University School of Social Work. He continues to write for teens, lawyers, and judges. Visit Judge Jacobs’s website AsktheJudge.info for free interactive educational tools that provide current information regarding laws, court decisions, and national news affecting teens.
Tom is a coauthor of Every Vote Matters and the author of What Are My Rights? and They Broke the Law—You Be the Judge.
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