Education Law

Federal judge rules students have no right to civics education while warning of peril to democracy

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A federal judge in Rhode Island has ruled that students in the state have no constitutional right to a civics education, even as he warned of a “deep flaw” in education priorities.

U.S. District Judge William Smith of the District of Rhode Island, an appointee of President George W. Bush, said the students seem to recognize that “American democracy is in peril.” It is hoped, he said, that those with power to address the need will respond appropriately.

The Washington Post has coverage and a copy of the opinion.

“With neither the power of the purse nor an army to compel compliance, the judiciary relies entirely upon the public’s respect for our democratic institutions and the rule of law,” Smith wrote. “When that respect crumbles, the guardrails fail and democracy dies. To avoid this fate, we must not only teach our young people the mechanics of our civic institutions, but why they matter in the context of American democracy.”

Smith referred to President Donald Trump’s tweets suggesting that the election should perhaps be delayed because of perceived voter fraud. The tweet was met with a “swift and strong rebuke from all quarters” that may have “momentarily stiffened the guardrails of democracy,” Smith said. But “the existential problem of creeping authoritarianism will not subside after one tweet storm.”

Smith cited scholars who say there are four key indicators of authoritarian behavior: weak commitment to democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, tolerance or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail liberties of the media and opponents.

The norms of democracy, scholars suggest, are showing mutual tolerance and forbearing power when it violates the spirit of the law, Smith said.

The scholars “describe the erosion and collapse of these norms across the American landscape,” Smith wrote. “It is both these hallmarks of democracy and concomitant democratic norms that, in effect, plaintiffs here suggest are missing from the civics education of our young people—not just education about the mechanisms of our democratic system, but its spirit; about what it means to be an American and even what America means.”

The students’ would-be class action alleged that the failure to provide an adequate civics education leaves them inadequately prepared to vote, serve on a jury, participate in civic activities, and understand political and economic systems.

They alleged violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection, privileges and immunities, and due process clauses. They also claimed violation of the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, the Jury Selection and Service Act, and the Constitution’s guarantee clause.

Smith labeled the students’ lawsuit “ambitious” for seeking recognition of rights not recognized by any federal court in recent history.

He noted, however, a decision by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Cincinnati earlier this year that found a fundamental right to a basic minimum education. The case concerned Detroit public schools. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer later settled the case, according to the Washington Post.

Civics education has been a priority for retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who founded the iCivics website to help students understand the importance of an independent judiciary and the right to due process.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. also promoted the value of civics education in his most recent year-end report.

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