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J-Term: Contemporary Issues Under the First Amendment

January Term at UVA has just wrapped up, the courses having taken place from January 3 – 13, 2017. With small classes, unique and intensive topics, and even study abroad opportunities, J-Term offers a chance for both students and faculty to take deep dives into intriguing topics. Lifetime Learning will release blogs from several UVA faculty who have chosen to share with alumni, parents and friends their experiences with these exclusive intensives in Thoughts From the Lawn’s new series, J-Term.

This first blog in the J-Term series has been written by James S. Todd IV, Lecturer in the Department of Politics.

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Last fall when I applied to teach a course on the First Amendment in the January term, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. The schedule is daunting. Classes meet at least four hours a day for ten out of eleven days, and a whole semester of work is crammed into that period. That meant two books for the students to read, open book mid-term and final exams, and a short paper summarizing arguments the students made in a series of debates.

We had class from 10:00 to 12:00 each morning and then took a two-hour break and reconvened from 2:00 to 4:00 in the afternoon. I thought that would make the class easier for all of us. It would save the students and me from four straight hours of lecture and allow time for lunch, reading, and office hours. The debates took place mostly in the afternoon sessions of the second week.

Among the topics debated were:

  • Do state laws banning polygamy violate the free exercise clause?
  • Should the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United be reversed?
  • Should the actual malice standard set by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan be modified to make it easier for public figures to recover damages for libel?
  • Should small business owners should be entitled to refuse service to homosexuals based on the business owners’ religious beliefs?

We also debated issues in four First Amendment cases now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, including one dealing with the constitutionality of a law prohibiting offensive trademarks (Lee v. Tam) and one determining whether the state of Missouri was justified in refusing to allow a church to participate in a state-funded program providing free paving material made from used auto and truck tires (Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Pauley). After each debate we took a vote in the class, and I think we were all surprised to see that the class split almost evenly on most of the topics.

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We had students in the class who had extensive debating experience and students who were shy about talking in class. In general I was very pleased with the effort all the students put into their debates and impressed with the quality of the arguments they made. In addition to the debates we had a good number of discussions in class and by the end of the two weeks even the shyest member of the class was participating.

The students ranged from those who had just completed their first semester at the University to those who were about to start into their last. Three of them had taken my American government class previously and two of those three had also taken my civil liberties class. As has been true of all the classes I’ve taught at UVA there was a good mix of ethnicities, personalities and political viewpoints. As might be expected, there were seven students from Northern Virginia (although one of those flew in from Okinawa where his family is now stationed) and seven more from other parts of the state (Richmond, Chesapeake, Winchester, and Charlottesville). Seven of the other nine students were from Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Georgia, and Florida. One student was from Beijing, China and the other from Lebanon (but now living in Haiti). They were a wonderful group of young people, and I very much enjoyed getting to know them and am glad to have had the experience of teaching in the January term.

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