The lesson for the day for more than 100 high school students visiting the S.J. Quinney College of Law was relatable to many teens in the audience: A 13-year-old junior high student wore a black armband to school to protest violence and her school board passed a ban on the practice to stop her, suspending her when she refused to take off the piece of fabric.
The case, Tinker v. Des Moines, is a landmark Supreme Court ruling from 1969 that established students’ rights to free speech in public schools.
While the incident happened decades ago, students who recently visited the College of Law found similarities in the case to their own lives today. They realized, during a mock law class taught by professor Bill Richards, that the freedom of speech granted to student in public schools today started with teenager Mary Beth Tinker’s struggle to wear an armband to class protest the Vietnam War—a fight that culminated in a four-year court battle that ended with a Supreme Court decision in her favor, protecting students’ constitutional right in public schools.
“Did this principal violate these kids’ rights? Does the First Amendment protect students’ speech?” Richards prompted students gathered in the College of Law’s moot courtroom. Students went on to discuss how wearing an armband constitutes speech and explored other legal questions in the case.
The purpose of Richards’ class with students who arrived at the College of Law from high schools around the state extended far beyond simply teaching about a well-known First Amendment ruling.
The class and a day of activities scheduled with it is part of a broader initiative by the College of Law and the national Law School Admissions Council to encourage students who may never have considered attending law school to give the idea a chance.
At Passageways to the Law, high school students spent the day with College of Law students, faculty and staff, where they received support and encouragement on how to pursue higher education. The event, an arm of the law school’s community outreach, is designed to give youth who might not otherwise have access to visiting the university campus a front row seat to learn more about future educational opportunities.
“Passageways is an interactive, informational event where participants learn about the law school admissions process, the resources and tools participants should seek as undergraduate students, law school life, and the legal profession generally. The program aims to reach, but is not limited to, Utah high school students who self-identify as members of an ethnically, racially and/or historically underrepresented community,” said Isabel Moreno, interim director of admissions at the College of Law, who helps to organize the program.
“Passageways is important because it is a concerted effort to increase accessibility of legal education and the legal profession within these groups,” she added.
The event is held as part of the “Diversity Matters” initiative, a national campaign sponsored by the Law School Admissions Council, which encourages diverse students to discover career opportunities in law. The initiative is part of an overall push by the legal community to improve diversity in law schools and in the legal profession.
While passageways has been held at the College of Law since 2003, its role in encouraging potential law students to give the legal field a chance has never been more important as the legal industry continues to try to improve diversity, Moreno said.
According to the Law School Admissions Council, applicants from underrepresented groups still lag behind their peers when it comes to attending and applying to law school. A lack of diversity in law school attendance leads to less representation in law firms and on the judicial bench—spheres where it’s important to have people with many different viewpoints and life experiences.
“Programs such as passageways serve as a catalyst to this commitment by inspiring young members of underrepresented communities to explore a career in law. This, in turn, heightens representation of these communities in all sectors of the legal profession, particularly in our judicial system. The ripple effect is a diversity of voices being heard in all level of the legal system and equal access to justice by all members of our community,” said Moreno.
The Passageways program also complements the strategy and core values outlined by University of Utah President Ruth Watkins to celebrate diversity and create opportunities for inclusiveness in the U’s learning communities.
And the passageways program is one of several ways the College of Law has made attempts to strengthen efforts and resources dedicated to improving diversity in recent years, including the creation of a Dean’s Diversity Council under Dean Bob Adler. The council is a group of alumni from diverse backgrounds and students who meet quarterly to discuss diversity-related challenges at the College of Law and in the legal profession more broadly.
Several students who attended passageways said the experience made them see the option of one day attending law school in a different light.
Besides attending the mock law class, students participated in activities where they passed the bar exam (the licensure exam students must pass after law school to practice law in a courtroom) and attended a graduation ceremony.
Mac Gough, a senior at Ames Academy in Murray, attended passageways to see if law school might one day be a fit for him. A member of his school’s debate team, Gough said he enjoyed Richards’ mock law class and gave him a taste for what it might be like to one day be a real law student.
“I’ve been going back and forth on whether I’d be interested in law,” said Gough. “I’m trying to found out if I’m passionate about it to go on to law school. I love talking about law and technicality. This was fun,” he said.