In the final round of the 10th Annual Moot Court Competition, held Saturday, Feb. 9, two teams of second-year law students presented arguments before a distinguished panel of judges at Rafael Diaz-Balart Hall.
The event was the culmination of a competition that began 16 weeks earlier with 25 teams arguing a case in front of law professors and attorneys from the community.
Senior Circuit Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, presided as chief justice. Joining him on the panel were Senior Circuit Judge A. Raymond Randolph of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and Chief Judge Linda Ann Wells of the Florida Third District Court of Appeal.
The four students, who worked in teams of two, included: Benjamin Crego and Brittany Dancel, arguing for the petitioner, and Altanese Phenelus and Chanel Rowe, arguing for the respondent (the Sunshine County School Board).
The issues presented were whether the School Board violated the First Amendment rights of its students by: 1) preventing the wearing of “Islam is the Devil!” t-shirts under its dress code policy; and 2) suspending the students for speech communicated online while outside of school grounds.
Representing the petitioner, Crego and Dancel tried to persuade the judges to reverse the ruling of the Twelfth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of the school board in this fictitious case.
Phenelus and Rowe, who represented the school board, argued that the school board had the authority to restrict the student’s actions because wearing the t-shirts impacted the school environment and jeopardized the safety of the students.
Addressing issue two, Dancel argued that the students’ speech “was off-campus speech, and thus, the school board had no authority to restrict it.” She claimed, in addition, that under Supreme Court precedent, the speech could not be restricted because it was “not lewd, vulgar, or plainly offensive. Furthermore, it did not create a substantial disruption within the school environment sufficient to be restricted under current precedent.”
During the competition, the judges’ questions were rapid and pointed. The students rarely were able to speak for more than a minute before a judge interrupted with another question.
“The judges were on point with their questions,” said Crego, who hopes to work in commercial litigation after law school. “It made for a good competition.”
Referring to the frequent and pointed questioning, Randolph said, “The reason judges ask questions, or the reason they should be asking questions, is to test theories. Not to test attorneys, or show somebody up, or to make them stumble, but to try and work through a problem.” After the competition, Phenelus, who also wants to be a litigator, acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining a clear line of argument while being peppered with questions.
“Being questioned by the judges was intense, but we prepared for it,” she said. “In the preliminary rounds, professors who are trained in First Amendment law questioned us. Some things were different, of course, because these judges are more seasoned. It was difficult, but we knew what was coming. We were excited.”
Ginsburg announced the verdict at a reception following the proceeding. Phenelus and Rowe received top honors, taking home the championship trophy. Rowe also won Best Orator.
“Receiving the Best Orator award was a great honor. Before entering this competition I always envisioned myself practicing primarily in a transactional capacity. This experience has definitely changed that vision,” Rowe said.
Randolph emphasized the importance of this experience, saying, “It is not only the actual argument, it’s the preparation for the argument. I think this focuses the mind and gets the students deeply into a problem. And then, having to express themselves by standing up and asking questions, I think is a very important experience.”