3R Program culminates in debate



By Cynthia Price
Legal News

It has been for about six months that attorney volunteers have been coming in to Ottawa Hills High School to work with students on the 3Rs (Rights, Responsibilities and Realities) with a view to creating better citizens as well as interesting some in legal careers.

At Wednesday’s final session, ten of the students engaged in a great debate about free speech, while the other students evaluated their arguments.

And all of them, about 75 strong, were able to get a feel for what law school is like, since the event was held at Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

The Grand Rapids Bar Association (GRBA) sponsored the seven-session program, working through social studies classes. Mark Smith of Rhoades McKee, 2011-2012 GRBA?president, led the team that explored models, eventually choosing one from the Cleveland Bar, and set up the program. (See Grand Rapids Legal News 11/20/13.)

Grand Rapids Public School (GRPS) Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal was in attendance to congratulate and encourage all of the students; it was through her support that the program had been able to take off. In addition, Neal’s daughter Natasha, who now serves as GRPS?Program Development Specialist and is also an attorney, ensured the logistics went smoothly.

After they arrived, the well-behaved students packed into the large lecture room at Cooley that encompasses two floors for introductory remarks.

Tracey Brame, Cooley Assistant Dean/

Acting Associate Dean, also one of the participating attorneys in the 3Rs program, welcomed them. Smith followed, saying he was impressed with how well the youth had done and hoped they would consider the legal profession.

Superintendent Neal spoke briefly, noting that the attorneys present were sacrificing “thousands of dollars” in billable hours by being there, because they cared so deeply.

And indeed, many attorneys were in attendance to show support. Among others, Nicholas Curcio of Dickinson Wright, James R. Sterken of Rodenhouse Kuipers, Yvonne Briley-Wilson, TV?and radio personality and recent Cooley graduate Tyrone Bynum,  and GRBA?president Kristin Vanden Berg of the U.S. District Court for the Western District, having all served as 3Rs volunteers, had come to wish the students well.

Joy Fossel of Varnum and Jon Jon Vander Ploeg of Smith Haughey Rice and Roegge, who is an Ottawa Hills graduate, gave their time as coaches for the two teams engaged in the debate.

Those two teams of five introduced themselves to the people gathered in the large classroom and adjourned to a small room across the hall, where there was appropriate technology to broadcast their debate to the students who remained.

The debate centered on the question of whether free speech, protected by the first amendment to the Constitution, should be limited.

Fossel and Vander Ploeg worked with their teams to lay out the traditional approaches taken to that question, and to help team members fashion arguments based on their own thoughts.

It was plain that the recent national situation with NBA owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments was at the top of the student’s minds, because from the outset both teams discussed whether he had a right to state his beliefs.

Joseph Spicer, who gave opening re-

marks for the team that supported limiting free speech, said, “If somebody yells out fire, somebody’s going to get hurt. For someone to say things about African-Americans the way Donald Sterling did... he represents the NBA, the people he’s associated with and when he said that it really made them look bad too. But we all know there are limits: like in school, there are certain things you can do when you’re outside of school that you can’t do when you’re there, you can’t go yelling out racial slurs.”

For the other team, Tomás Jimenez argued, “By Donald using his freedom of speech he allowed everyone to know where he stood. So, it didn’t cause any violence, but now everybody knows that he’s against the blacks and that’s a good reason to allow free speech.”

When Vander Ploeg was discussing the issue with his team, student Najaah Exodus pointed out that one function of a free-speech society is it allows people with an opposing opinion “to answer back.” In the debate she added, “People should have a right to say what they want so that they don’t feel like expression is taken away from them, that’s a freedom.”

Before rebuttal, the teams caucused again. Vander Ploeg explained to his team that they really had already en-

gaged in rebuttal because they responded to the other team’s argument, but they should continue in the same vein.

In the brief rebuttal Mark Norman from the team coached by Fossel brought up the gray area of bullying. “The opposing team has admitted that free speech can cause violence,” he said, “and it can cause crimes, but it can also kill people because of suicides. A lot of people die of bullying and cyberbullying, hang themselves — you can’t say just anything if it hurts society.”

Arriasiah Johnson argued, “If you don’t draw a line somewhere the situation will go further than it should go, will cause more drama and more commotion than it needed to.”

Ricky Matthews, for the opposing team, asked, “Why have a freedom of speech law when you can’t say what you want to say? It’s better to have someone who committed a crime in jail than someone who just made comments.”

Cooley Professor Chris Hastings, who was instrumental in arranging for the event to be held at the law school, served as judge and timekeeper. Afterwards, Hastings told the teens that he was impressed with their speaking skills and lack of nervousness. “You spoke in the very hardest of arenas, with nothing written down in front of you. You were supposed to speak from the heart – and you did,” he commented.

Videographer Josh Tyron took preliminary shots for a video on the 3Rs, similar to that used by the Cleveland Bar’s program. Since that video featured a football star, there was talk about inviting Grand Rapids native boxer Floyd Mayweather to participate in the final GRBA version.

After Natasha Neal discussed the evaluation with the students in the larger room, the debate was declared a tie.