18th annual First Amendment Moot Court Competition addresses New Jersey Motor Vehicle v. Stone

The 18th annual National First Amendment Moot Court competition, cosponsored by the First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University Law School, will be conducted Feb. 21-22.

Recognized as one of the nation’s finest constitutional-law competitions, the competition attracts many of the nation’s top law schools. The year’s competition focuses on a hypothetical case involving state specialty license plates. Teams of student advocates from 35 law schools will argue both sides of New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission v. Stone, which challenges the student competitors to immerse themselves in such complex First Amendment issues as the government-speech doctrine, the public-forum doctrine and the viewpoint-neutrality principle.

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“This annual competition provides future lawyers with an opportunity to consider fundamental questions of free expression and religious liberty,” said Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. “In arguing this year’s hypothetical case, students will consider the extent to which government may control speech, in this instance on specialty license plates issued by states — a real issue very much in the news in recent months.”

More than 200 attorneys, professors, federal and state judges, and legal scholars will judge the preliminary rounds and final rounds in the two-day competition. A total of $5,000 in prizes is awarded to winning, runner-up and semi-finalist teams, and to individuals for “best brief” and “best oralist.”

The competition is conducted in rounds held at the Vanderbilt Law School and at the John Seigenthaler Center on Vanderbilt’s Peabody campus, home to the Nashville offices of the First Amendment Center.

3L Sarah Luppen is serving as Executive Justice of the competition, and 3Ls Kevin Chastine, Elizabeth Hyon and Jeff Sand are Associate Justices. The law school’s Moot Court Board, headed by Chief Justice Brad Willard, is responsible for constructing the problem for the Freedom Forum competition.

The student who receives the highest “oral argument” score in preliminary rounds will receive an engraved gavel in honor of Richard S. Arnold, formerly a judge on the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Arnold, who died in 2004, was a staunch advocate for better press-bar relations so that the public would be better informed about the activities of the federal court system.

Semi-final and final-round judges in the competition will include, from the federal judiciary, Steven M. Colloton, 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Martha Craig Daughtrey, ’68, 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals; Bernice Donald, district judge, Western District of Tennessee; Robert L. Echols, district judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Sidney Fitzwater, chief judge, Northern District of Texas; Julia S. Gibbons, ’75, 6th Circuit; Marian F. Harrison, bankruptcy judge, Middle District of Tennessee; William J. Haynes Jr., ’73, district judge, Middle District of Tennessee; Gilbert Merritt, ’60, 6th Circuit; Reggie B. Walton, district judge, District of Columbia; and Susan Webber Wright, district judge, Eastern District of Arkansas. Joining them from the state judiciary will be Cornelia A. Clark, ’79, Tennessee Supreme Court.

A two-person team from the George Mason University School of Law won last year’s competition. The demanding competition requires students to write an appellate brief and to answer challenging legal questions from the judges. The event requires a thorough understanding of First Amendment law, poise under pressure and expertise in fielding complex legal questions.

The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of the press and of religion, the right to assemble and petition the government.

The First Amendment Center is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum. The center has offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

– Gene Policinski

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