Eighth graders argue real federal case in trip to courthouse

Jan. 3, 2024 | Staasi Heropoulos

Judge Mark Mason, left, stands with eighth graders in the Discovering Justice program at West Springfield Middle School, who conducted a mock trial Dec. 11 at the federal courthouse in Springfield.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

SPRINGFIELD — The verdict is in. Eighth grade students in West Springfield Middle School were courtroom stars when they argued a free speech case before Judge Mark Mason.

It was a mock trial before a real judge, students assuming the roles of prosecution, defense and witnesses as Mason heard arguments about whether the First Amendment protects one student who is critical of another on the social media platform TikTok.

The scenario was as realistic as it gets. Mason is a real judge in Massachusetts. The case is being tried for real in the federal judicial system, just not in Springfield.

Students in the school’s Discovering Justice extracurricular program had several months to prepare for the trial, which happened during a Dec. 11 visit to the courthouse. Mason swore everyone in, and the case began with opening arguments, before both sides presented evidence to the jury.

The students had 20 minutes each to make their case before it went to the jury. Jurors had five minutes to deliberate and announce their verdict.

School Committee member Diana Coyne sat on the jury.

“The students were extremely well prepared. They did a lot of research regarding the case, including some case law that set precedents. They delivered very confidently,” she said.

Discovering Justice is a civic education nonprofit organization that has worked with thousands of students nationwide, introducing them to workings of the legal system. Eligible schools apply to be part of the program. This was the first time the middle school has joined the initiative.

There are more than 300 eighth grade students in the middle school — 15 of them who expressed interest were involved in the day’s legal proceedings.

“There’s a multitude of lessons they’ve picked up from this, not the least of which is the level of preparation it takes to conduct a big and complex task,” said middle school Principal Peter Gillen, who also served as a juror.

“They learned specifics about how our justice system works and free speech constraints,” he continued. “But the bigger lesson for me and our kids is the day-to-day preparation it took to undertake this project, and how much each role has to go through in order to be ready.”

Two classes from the Springfield city schools also joined the program and tried separate cases in other courtrooms in the federal building.

In the weeks leading up to the trial, lawyers worked with the students to explain how the legal proceedings would work and helped the students prepare their cases. This included instruction on legal writing, critical thinking and public speaking.

“It was excellent for those students to see a working courtroom, basically in session. Mason worked it as though it was an actual proceeding and gave them guidance and all the steps that one follows for an actual court case,” said Coyne.

“I really felt like there were some future lawyers in the room. It was very clear to me watching the presentation,” she continued.

The middle school has exposed its students to government in a number of ways, including learning about how the state government operates in a trip to Boston.

“It’s important for kids to be able to make connections to how their community works, how their community supports them and those in need,” said Gillen.

“It’s also important for kids to understand the structures in their community that support and defend laws and regulations they’re going to be expected to adhere to,” said Gillen. “In a very short time, they’re going to be the leaders in that group.”

The students will once again appear in federal court in the spring when this case is appealed in another mock trial. The student litigants celebrated the verdict with a pizza party.

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