Lawyers Journal

'Conversations' launch takes civil liberties talks to Massachusetts high schools

Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall joined MBA President Joseph P.J. Vrabel and Atty. James McGuire of the firm Brown Rudnick Berlack & Israels, LLP on Sept. 12 to launch the MBA's first major public program of the new association year.

The trio met with 30 students from the Boston Public Schools college prep school Another Course to College on Sept. 12 to kick off "Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis." MBA officers and members of the Presidential Task Force on the Preservation of Rights, Liberties and Access to Justice were on hand for the launch.

The MBA is planning to bring the "Conversations" program to more than 100 high schools across the state during this school year.

Through the program, which was developed by the American Bar Association (ABA), volunteer attorneys will lead high school students in discussions of the complex legal and civic issues facing our nation in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The MBA is the first bar association in the country to present the program and, as of the program's debut, more than 100 MBA members had volunteers to serve as facilitators.

"The terrorist attacks of last Sept. 11 and continuing terrorist activities since then, have put America's basic principles to the test," said MBA President Vrabel. "A wide range of governmental responses have been proposed, legal and military options are being pursued, policy decisions are being made, and citizens are being asked to participate in homeland-security initiatives, all in the name of liberty and freedom. All of these efforts will affect our lives for years to come.

"By holding these 'conversations' about the role of law today in American society," said MBA President Vrabel, "we may better appreciate the importance of our liberties, and from that perspective we can develop a deeper understanding of how to respond to changing circumstances that will affect our daily lives.

"In the broadest sense, these 'conversations' are a discourse about our country's future, and it is fitting that they begin with the leaders of tomorrow," Vrabel said.

In her opening remarks, Chief Justice Marshall spoke to the students about how the American form of democracy differs from the parliamentary systems of other democratic countries, such as Great Britain or France.

"In our system of government," she said, "the legislature makes the laws, but there are certain things they cannot touch. That's the Bill of Rights. The legislature cannot take away those rights.

"That has made the U.S. very different from any other democracy," said Marshall. "The Bill of Rights functions as a check on the legislature, the congress, the president – and whatever they might want to do.

"The conversation we're about to have," Marshall said, "is this: We're not talking about a casual murder – if there is such a thing. We're talking about a major threat to the security of our country. So, when our government says 'your very survival depends on our ability to search your house,' can we permit that in our society?"

At each high school that will host the "Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis" program, an MBA member will act as facilitator of a discussion on one or more of the following topics, using a series of questions, scenarios and conversation starters:

  • American Identity, Culture and Constitutional Principles
  • Democracy and Debate
  • Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis
  • Prosecuting Terrorism at Home and Abroad
  • Global Perspectives on American Values

Each "Conversations" program will focus on creating a dialogue with students about American values in relation to our identities, civic traditions and diverse world cultures. Extensive supporting materials developed by the ABA and adapted with input from the MBA's Presidential Task Force on the Preservation of Rights, Liberties and Access to Justice will assist the MBA's volunteer members in preparing for their roles as facilitators.

Following the Sept. 12 launch, MBA officers and task force members were scheduled to present "Conversations" at the following high schools: Walpole High School, Walpole; Framingham High School, Framingham; Minnechaug High School, Wilbraham; Charlestown High School, Charlestown; Holy Name Central Catholic, Worcester; King Phillip High School, Wrentham; Lowell Catholic High School, Lowell; Lowell High School, Lowell; Mansfield High School, Mansfield; Natick High School, Natick; Presentation of Mary Academy, Methuen.

"Conversations" is a companion program to other MBA efforts related to the Sept. 11 tragedies.

In November 2001, the MBA held a special Dial-a-Lawyer program for Massachusetts families of the victims, in which volunteer attorneys provided free legal advice on probate, family and tax-related issues.

Also in November 2001, the Presidential Task Force provided comments to the U.S. Department of Justice on the Air Transportation Safety And System Stabilization Act.

MBA members also currently are working with some of the 150 Massachusetts families affected by the terrorist attacks by offering free legal assistance and pro bono referrals in the areas of Real Property and Labor & Employment law.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association