In an extraordinary decision that referenced President Trump’s tweets to postpone the November presidential elections, U.S. District Court Judge William Smith said the public school students who filed the lawsuit were not on a “wild-eyed effort to expand the reach of substantive due process.” Rather, he said, they were issuing “a cry for help from a generation of young people who are destined to inherit a country which we — the generation currently in charge — are not stewarding well.”
“What these young people seem to recognize is that American democracy is in peril,” he wrote (see opinion in full below). “Its survival, and their ability to reap the benefit of living in a country with robust freedoms and rights, a strong economy, and a moral center protected by the rule of law is something that citizens must cherish, protect, and constantly work for. We would do well to pay attention to their plea.”
The class-action lawsuit filed two years ago by 14 named students and their parents said that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) and state education and legislative leaders had failed to provide them with an “education that is adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants capable of voting, serving on a jury, understanding economic, social, and political systems sufficiently to make informed choices, and to participate effectively in civic activities.”
That failure, the lawsuit said, violated their constitutional rights under different parts of the Constitution that they said guaranteed them the right to an education that prepares them to be active citizens. The lawsuit said the defendants had “downgraded the teaching of social studies and civics, focusing in recent decades on basic reading and math instruction” and “neglected professional development of teachers in civics education.”
But Smith said in his ruling last week that in regard to the contention by students that their constitutional rights included a right to civics education, “The answer to that question is, regrettably, no.” He said, however, that the students “should be commended for bringing this case,” believed to be the first of its kind in a U.S. court.
“It highlights a deep flaw in our national education priorities and policies,” Smith wrote. “The court cannot provide the remedy plaintiffs seek, but in denying that relief, the court adds its voice to plaintiffs’ in calling attention to their plea. Hopefully, others who have the power to address this need will respond appropriately.”
Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law and an expert on constitutional law and education law, criticized the ruling, saying: “State courts across the country routinely answer these types of questions. The notion that a federal court cannot act, when states have otherwise failed to do so, is inconsistent with the history of public education.”
There has long been concern about the lack of comprehensive civics education in America’s schools, especially during the past few decades when education reform policy was focused on raising standardized test scores in math and reading — which was referenced in the lawsuit.
Advocates seeking equity in public education have turned to the courts in recent years to try to push state legislatures to adequately fund public schools as well as ensure that education programs prepare students to function as adults.
Earlier this year, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) settled a historic lawsuit after a federal appeals court’s ruling that students in the low-performing Detroit school system have a constitutional right to expect to learn to read and write in their public schools. Filed on behalf of students in some of the lowest-performing schools in Detroit’s long-troubled public schools, their underlying case was based on the due-process and equal-protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, which were also part of the Rhode Island civics education lawsuit.
The U.S. Supreme Court has never decided the issue of whether the Constitution provides a fundamental right to “a basic minimum education,” and advocates for the plaintiffs in the Detroit literacy case were concerned that the high court, with two justices nominated by President Trump, would not uphold the appellate decision. (The court appears to be about to get a third justice nominated by Trump.)
The civics education lawsuit was brought two years ago by Rhode Island students, including some who received special education services from their schools or were English language learners in the Providence public school district.
The students said in their lawsuit that they had “limited opportunities for student involvement in co-curricular and extracurricular activities,” no “library media specialists,” no “opportunities for field trips to the state legislature, city council, or courts”; no or very limited options “for student participation in school governance or school affairs”; and “no or very limited school newspapers, school sponsored speech and debate or moot court activities.”
The students asked the court to declare that all U.S. students have a constitutional right to a “meaningful educational opportunity” that would adequately prepare them to be “capable voters and jurors” and exercise all other constitutional rights and freedoms. And the lawsuit asked the court to require the defendants to provide such an education.
Smith criticized the state officials who were being sued for arguing that they were not responsible for providing the kind of education the students were seeking, and that local officials were culpable. He said they “fundamentally mischaracterize the thrust” of the students’ complaint, which argued that it is a failure of the state to “properly prepare students to meaningfully participate in a democratic and civil society.”
In his ruling, Smith went into detail about his view of the state of the American democracy. He wrote in part: “Even as this opinion was being prepared, the president tweeted that perhaps the presidential election should be delayed because of perceived ‘voter fraud.’
“This prompted a swift and strong rebuke from all quarters, including from one prominent conservative legal scholar who called this behavior fascistic, and deserving of immediate impeachment and removal from office. Perhaps such an extreme suggestion by the president momentarily stiffened the guardrails of democracy; but the existential problem of creeping authoritarianism will not subside after one Tweet storm.”
Smith wrote that it is vital that students learn civics and American history.
“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. 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. That is, we must do the hard work of confronting our national history and how it informs who and what we are as a nation.”
He quoted historian Jill Lepore, saying that “historians in recent times have shied away from writing about the history of the nation with its institutional slavery, Indian wars, segregation, misguided foreign wars and the like for ‘fear of complicity — complicity with the atrocities of U.S. foreign policy and complicity with regimes of political oppression at home.’
“When the real historians fade from the front, the demagogues move in,” he wrote. “The most popular ‘history’ books in recent years are written by the likes of disgraced cable television commentator Bill O’Reilly whose “Killing” books [‘Killing Lincoln,’ and so on] have sold millions of copies.”
Black said it was unfortunate that Smith did not see a role for the courts in assuring adequate civics education to American students.
“The court explored the role of public education in the development of our overall democracy and individual citizenship in a way very few before have. Yet, there were lots of problematic assumptions built into the court’s telling of the story and several things left out that led to its conclusion that this is not a matter for the judiciary. Sadly, the path forward in this case is extremely tough because of the composition of higher courts.”