Teaching the Bill of Rights to those who Shouldn’t Use them Yet

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Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal. He loved his Fifth Amendment

The Founding Fathers never counted on kids who know too much for their own good.

My students, in their urban-battleground existence in the Bronx, have seen enough bad situations to turn your Nantucket Reds a deep brown.   As much as they don’t want to admit it, their childhood has been accelerated.  They think grown-up thoughts, grown-up ideas, even grown-up vocabulary (especially what you can’t say in school.)

In spite of this, they are still children.  Still the ward of their parents. 

Now try to explain the Bill of Rights to them.  It’s as if you’re dangling the keys to a Porsche, yet you keep snatching it away until the drivers’ test.

The United States Bill of Rights, written in 1789 and ratified in 1791, outline the basic freedoms and rights enjoyed by all Americans.  It takes its rightful place among the faded parchment of our lore: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights is also the most controversial of the three crinkly papers in the National Archives.  The exact meaning and extent of these rights is still hotly debated.  Conservatives want to go over the thing with White-Out and a Sharpie.  Liberals want to tack on another ream of paper covering everything from environmental awareness to Hacky-Sack regulations. 

Yet whatever your persuasion, one thing is clear: this is not kid stuff.  The Bill of Rights was meant for adults.

Many of your high-minded, Kum-Ba-Yah teachers of the granola type forget this mantra, with disastrous results.  After 30 minutes of finally getting a semblance of quiet from his little hellions, Mr. Patchouli diagrams how the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of everyone–even the students.  “That’s right, boys and girls, you have the right to say what you want, do what you want, read and write what you want…”

Think he’s getting his book reports on time anymore?  That science fair project ever get done?  How about the assessments he needs to perform his “data-driven instruction”? 

By January, this class has gone completely unhinged.  And all of them utter the same thing: “I’m allowed to!  It’s in the F***ing Bill of Rights!”

Many liberal-minded teachers are, unfortunately, like Mr. Patchouli.  They’re not bad people, and I’m sure they mean well.  Their problem is their audience–a pack of self-absorbed, out-of-control, feisty, moody, bored, defiant snot factories.   This is not the informed citizenry that Madison and Jefferson envisioned.  Yet these teachers treat them like adults, forgetting to be honest with them about their status.

So for those who must teach about American freedoms to children, here’s a step-by-step guide. 

AMENDMENT 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

This one is simple.  Make sure you stress two important caveats:

(1) You have all of these rights, but you can’t hurt anybody or cause anybody to get hurt.  (Conservatives can include caveats about Communism, terrorism, atheism, hippies, etc.  Liberals can include caveats about neo-Nazis, racists, Klansmen, fascism, capitalism, anyone remotely resembling Barack Obama, etc.)

(2) You’re a kid.  In school, at home, in life, you’re the property of adults until you’re 18.  You don’t have these rights yet.  Deal with it.

AMENDMENT 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This one should be a no-brainer, just be careful of your students.  “Well-Regulated” is key: to legally own a gun, you have to abide by the gun ownership laws of your state.  The gun Ramon got “from his friend” who “just got out” probably doesn’t count.  Finally, for God’s sake, don’t mention Texas.

AMENDMENT 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

This antique of the Revolutionary War served a purpose.  Stress the bad things the British did to houses, money, furniture and goods when discussing the quartering situation to younger students.  In high school, mention what the redcoats did to women–that’ll perk up the back row.

AMENDMENT 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendments 4, 5, 6 and 8 are often grouped together.  I call them the “Law and Order/CSI/NCIS Amendments” since my kids probably know all these rights from these television programs, if not from their own experience.  Sit back and enjoy when your tough boy does his best Eliot Stabler impression and mimicks “tuning up” a suspect.

As for Amendment 4, this is when personal stories arise of families dealing with law enforcement.  If they’re guilty as sin, don’t tell it to the kid’s face.  Besides, he may get that gun he bought from Ramon and train its business end on you.

AMENDMENT 5: No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Few amendments have such legendary status as the fifth.  It’s chock full of protections for the accused, as well as the old eminent domain clause (to be avoided if in the Bronx, as the Cross-Bronx Expressway can be a touchy subject).  Just make sure they know that double jeopardy has nothing to do with the game show.  The “Right to Remain Silent” comes from this amendment. 

Finally, include a funny anecdote about “taking the fifth”, such as Las Vegas gambling kingpin Lefty Rosenthal invoking his rights 37 times to a Congressional subcommittee, thus earning his nickname.  Administrators love when teachers use organized crime: the RICO charts help kids with their organizational skills.

AMENDMENT 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Kids may get the impression that this is how all criminal trials are conducted.  Well, “Assistance of Counsel for his defense” does not mean GOOD assistance of counsel.  Again, as before, try to avoid personal stories with Amendment 6.  Last thing you need was a fistfight over why a cousin got a 10-year bit due to a dumbass public defender screwing up their case.

 AMENDMENT 7: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

This is why the Enron people, the Adelphia folks and Bernie Madoff could not go to Judge Judy–to our chagrin.

AMENDMENT 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This is why we don’t have public flogging, disembowelment, breaking at the wheel, the stocks, the pillory, crucifixion, public beheadings, or body parts on pikes–don’t you just love the old days?

AMENDMENT 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This is the “dumbass” amendment.  Opponents of the Bill of Rights thought that such a bill was nonsense because it would be impossible to list all the rights a person had.  What about slapping your little sister?  How about dressing in your mother’s nightgown on the street?  When a fat kid takes your Twinkie, do you have the right to belt him in his chubby kisser?

Obviously, you have other rights.  These aren’t all of the rights, and Amendment 9 takes care of that.  Now shut up and finish your long division, you little pissant!

AMENDMENT 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This is the one that caused a lot of trouble.  Southern rednecks thought this amendment gave them a green light to put on bedsheets and go buck-wild on blacks.  Some states thought it gave them carte-blanche to insert a prayer into public schools.  The fat kid invoked the Tenth as reason enough to take your Twinkie.

Legislation has taken a lot of the loopholes out of the Tenth, so much of the damage has been undone.  Thankfully.

Let me know how you do with this.  If there’s any questions about this method, let me know.  I’ll send that fat kid with the Twinkie.  That’ll straighten those little bastards out.

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