Seven alumni appellate judges among those presiding over final rounds of the First Amendment Moot Court Competition

Feb 18, 2011

Vanderbilt alumni were prominent among the judges of the 21st Annual National First Amendment Moot Court Competition, an annual event co-sponsored by Vanderbilt Law School and the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

Judges for the final and semi-final rounds in the competition included:

  • Senior Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey '68, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
  • Senior Judge Gilbert S. Merritt Jr. '60, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
  • Judge Jane B. Stranch '78, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
  • Judge Bernice B. Donald, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee
  • Judge James C. Mahan '73, U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada
  • Judges William J. Haynes Jr. '73, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee
  • Judge Aleta A. Trauger '76, U.S. District  Court for the Middle District of Tennessee
  • Judge Susan Webber Wright, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas.  
  • Judge Marian F. Harrison, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Middle District of Tennessee
  • Chief Justice Cornelia A. Clark '79, Tennessee Supreme Court. 

The competition, held February 17 and 18 at Vanderbilt Law School and the First Amendment Center, presented teams with a hypothetical case involving student speech, the same problem used in Vanderbilt's 2011 intramural Moot Court Competition. The problem was written by Vanderbilt Moot Court Board problem editors Lauren Fromme, Allison Davis and Joanna Robinson, who worked in conjunction with Adjunct Professor of Law and First Amendment expert David Hudson, Class of 1994, and Tiffany Villager, both of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.  The question was whether public school officials have the authority to punish a student for online expression off-campus that officials deem vulgar, invasive of the rights of others or potentially disruptive to the classroom.

Teams of student advocates from 34 law schools argued both sides of the case, and the team from the College of William and Mary Law School in Virginia won the competition. Winning team members were Stephen P. Barry and Brandon L. Boxler.

As the competition's host, Vanderbilt does not participate in the competition.

The topic "was perfectly timely; certainly the proliferation of speech on the Internet and hateful speech, in particular, has become a problem and a challenge that needs to be dealt with and the extent to which it is the duty of public schools to be a part of solving that problem is a novel and important question," said Barry from the winning College of William and Mary team. The team represented the student plaintiff in the final round. Added teammate Boxler, "It was a very difficult topic because there were clearly competing interests. On one hand you have freedom of speech, which everyone recognizes is one of the most important values in society; on the other hand, you have the safety and security of students. … Those two interests clashed in a significant way."

Runner-up in the two-day competition was Boston University School of Law. Team members were Leigh Campbell and Jen Mikels. Recognized for "best brief" in the competition were Jeff Riesenmy and Melissa Softness from Emory University School of Law, and for "best oralist," Reed White from Georgia State University College of Law.

Campbell of the runner-up Boston University team said of the hypothetical case, "This is something that I didn't realize was so pervasive among the courts, that it was such a big issue, and so learning about it … is applicable to the real world of the Internet that we're facing." Her colleague, Mikels, said, “All the judges throughout the competition were tough, but [the final-round jurists] were certainly a hot bench — they asked a lot of very on-point questions."

Top awards were presented to:

Winning team: College of William and Mary Law School
Runner-up: Boston University School of Law
Semi-finalists: DePaul University College of Law and University of Southern California, Gould School of Law
Best brief: Jeff Riesenmy and Melissa Softness, Emory University School of Law
Richard S. Arnold Best Oralist Award: Reed White, Georgia State University College of Law

Receiving competition gavels:

Runner-up best brief: Jacqueline Greene and Steven Chang, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
Runner-up best oralist: Stephen P. Barry, College of William and Mary Law School

Recognized as one of the nation’s finest constitutional-law competitions, the First Amendment Moot Court Competition attracts many of the nation’s top law schools.

“In the National First Amendment Moot Court Competition, we strive to expose significant numbers of future lawyers to vital First Amendment questions as illustrated by contemporary flash-point issues,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center. “Our hope is that these soon-to-be attorneys will be encouraged to become advocates and defenders of the five freedoms of the First Amendment throughout their legal careers.”

Tiffany Villager, director of First Amendment research for the First Amendment Center, said, “Each year we seek to give the Moot Court competitors a challenging and controversial issue in First Amendment law that’s drawn from today’s headlines. This year’s hypothetical involving off-campus online student speech is a question that has engaged the legal community, politicians and society.”

“For law students, the competition offers a unique opportunity to learn the skills of appellate advocacy before distinguished federal and state jurists while deepening their understanding to the First Amendment,” said Villager, who directs the Moot Court program.

The best-oralist award for the highest oral-argument score in preliminary rounds comes with 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.

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 supports the First Amendment and builds understanding of its core freedoms through education, information and entertainment. 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 rights to assemble and to petition the government.

The First Amendment Center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, and in Washington, D.C., is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated with the Newseum and the Diversity Institute. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies. Its offices on the Vanderbilt campus are located in the John Seigenthaler Center.

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