• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).


May 1 Law Day

Let's celebrate!

February 12, 2017

May 1 is a United States holiday known as Law Day. Declared in 1958 and formally established in 1961, it was the brainchild of an advisor to President Eisenhower, who designed it to counteract the Soviet Union’s celebration of Worker’s Day. Not elevated to the same level as Memorial or Martin Luther King Jr. Day, May 1 nonetheless enjoys fanfare among lawyers. In Washington, it is often the occasion of American Bar Association talks, presentations and panel discussions.   

This year, let’s celebrate May 1 in grand style! Because higher education plays such an important role explaining and exploring, training and tutoring people in the law, let’s mark the day in our colleges and universities with an old-fashioned “teach in.” Here are some topic ideas. What is the rule of law exactly, and why is everyone talking about it so much lately? What does the doctrine of separation of powers mean? What is a tri-partite political system? What is a republic, and how does it differ from theocracies, aristocracies or autocracies? Historically, how did the Constitution arise after the American Revolution? What is the Bill of Rights, why is it separate from the Constitution? Some table top exercises might be used to explore concepts such as “due process,” equal protection,” and “free speech.”  For those institutions that specialize in legal doctrines, “stare decisis” might be particularly useful, along with “judicial review.” Every campus with a law school might do well to hold a special section on, perhaps even a dramatic reading of, Marbury v. Madison, the seminal 1803 case in which Justice John Marshall states “It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is.”

Most readers will get the associations from these topics to contemporary news quickly. I can reach longer and deeper than the instruction-by-contrast President Trump and his fascist-loving advisor Steve Bannon currently offer, however. Having been teaching these basic concepts in virtually every course I have taught for the past 29 -years – including and especially courses on internet law and policy -- I can attest that an understanding of these essential concepts is sadly in short supply, even among college students, and even in some of the most select colleges in the United States today. 

To some degree I hold the bar association responsible for having professionalized a legal education in this country. The effect of that professionalization is to denude a good, liberal arts education of these basic concepts.  Only those willing to jump through the hoops of college, L.S.A.T., and law school admissions get to know what these concepts mean. That is not enough instruction for the voting public to internalize the ideas or have them take on practical and sustained meaning.  And here is something else I know that I don’t think President Trump or Steve Bannon believe:  the students I have are hungry for this information. They appreciate knowing it, and quickly apply the concepts to very contemporary internet-related issues of communications and intellectual property law, online harassment, privacy and free speech. 

 Students come alive when given the intellectual tools of our society.  Isn’t that they way to counteract those forces that would prefer to mock and abuse those tools?  Colleges and universities could tie this exercise to our outreach missions.  Higher education, open the doors and invite the public in for the day.  Opportunists such as Putin and Trump cynically take advantage of ignorance. Bannon is practically a self-professed fascist, adopting none other than the Italian fascist Julius Evola’s theories that should have ended with Mussolini hanging by his toes. Here is a test to determine whether we need such a day. Answer the following question: What is the doctrine of stare decisis and how does it related to Ajit Pai’s agenda for the Federal Communication’s Commission?  Even if you know the answer, ask your students this week.  Played out politically, that answer may have an impact on their use of the internet for some time.

 On May 1, college and universities should cancel classes, get students to be guides, set out a coffee and teas service and bring the public in to learn about essential American political ideas and values. Administrators, academics and young instructors can lead discussion sections on what U.S. law means, why it has sustained this country from Revolution to Civil War, from an agricultural to an industrial to an information economy, slavery to freedom, and through successive waves of immigration.  People still want to come to this country.  Notwithstanding our flaws, the United States embraced law as the foundation to freedom and liberty, to encourage both incentive and innovation, to offer spiritual and material expression to our humanity.  That is a tradition worth remembering, one we should celebrate, and share deeply its meaning for contemporary challenges to its principles in today’s society.


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