Public Education: A Right Entitled to All

January 19, 2015

By: Brandon Pierce

Today was the day: Kevin’s first day of school.  Ten years old, gifted, and sitting with his pencil in hand—Kevin was ready.  The teacher came before the class and gave the instructions for the first assignment:

Gawd muwrein!  I clike fund ans he book? If topher largetwen to climbegan.  What limse anders plast forh.”

One fact I forgot to mention is that Kevin didn’t speak English.  He didn’t even speak Spanish, or any other well-known language in the United States.  Kevin was from a small Guatemalan village where one of over fifty ancient Mayan languages was spoken.  But there he was, in his first American classroom, receiving his American education.

Kevin is one of the over 68,000 unaccompanied minors that have entered the United States illegally since October 2013.  In November 2014, the U.S. Department of Education issued a fact sheet that outlines the basics about the illegal, unaccompanied minors’ rights.  As detailed in the fact sheet, once these minors have been apprehended in the U.S., they are put in the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) custody.  While in HHS custody, the children are sheltered in government centers where they receive educational services.  Most children, like Kevin, are released into the United States under the custody of a family member or legal guardian (known as a ‘sponsor’).  While in the guardian’s care, these children attend classes in public schools, often times without knowledge of the English language.  But who would allow such a thing?  The United States Supreme Court would!


America: Home of the Educated

“Denial of an education is the analogue of denial of the right to vote: the former relegates the individual to second-class social status; the latter places him at a permanent political disadvantage.” – Justice Marshall (Plyler v. Doe)

In June 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices held in Plyler v. Doe that no state should constitutionally deny any person a free public education on account of his immigration status.  Put simply, undocumented children have the same right to a public education as U.S. citizens.

This issue arose out of restrictive Texas education laws.  With regard to undocumented children, Texas education laws mandated that the state: (1) withhold funds otherwise meant for educating children who were not “legally admitted” into the United States and (2) deny enrollment to those children in Texas public schools.

What did it mean to be “legally admitted” in the United States?  Pursuant to state policy, a person was legally admitted if he: (1) presented documentation demonstrating he was legally present in the United States, or (2) federal immigration officials confirmed such documentation was in the process of being obtained.  Ultimately, a group of students from Mexico that did not satisfy the “legally admitted” criteria filed a lawsuit to challenge the Texas education laws.  The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.  There, Texas’s education laws were held unconstitutional.

The Court based its rationale on the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  More specifically, the Court referenced a provision referred to as the “Equal Protection Clause.”  That clause states, “No State shall . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”  Therefore, unaccompanied children in the United States are entitled to public education.

New York State of Mind

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”                          – Emma Lazarus

Let us consider New York City (NYC): the proverbial gateway into America’s land of opportunity.  For the 2014-15 academic school year, NYC public schools have enrolled over 2,000 unaccompanied minors.  Like Kevin, many of these children have never had one English language course.  To combat this dilemma, NYC schools have implemented the English Language Learners (ELLs) program.  ELLs is a bilingual program that promotes the social and academic development of students who have recently arrived to the U.S. without proficient English skills.  Devora Kaye, NYC’s Department of Education spokeswoman, endorses such progressive actions, reaffirming the Court’s decision in Plyler v. Doe.  She asserts the department’s belief that “every child has a right to a great education, and we are committed to providing children who have escaped violence with the academic foundation and access to services that they need to establish a path to long-term achievement.”


By contrast, not all of New York’s actions have shown a general consensus toward the notion of “education for all.”  New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reviewed approximately 20 percent of the state’s school districts.  Within those districts, the NYCLU discovered that the majority has assembled arduous barriers for undocumented students, thus, potentially preventing their enrollment.  Consider this: seventy-three New York school districts require birth certificates for enrollment.  (Nineteen of those districts require the “original” birth certificate.)  In response, the NYCLU urged state education officials to formulate a model universal enrollment form and list of permissible evidentiary documents.  This is meant to develop uniformity within the state’s education system.

What Does This Mean for Other Children like Kevin?

Analysts are certain that more unaccompanied children are coming, but what is unclear is how they will be welcomed.  This dilemma must be met with an unwavering commitment to U.S. values and standards.  Equality and justice have long been the staple of America’s uniqueness.  If we deny those considerations to all mankind, then we have given up our uniqueness in the world.  In sports language, we have forfeited.  In war language, we have surrendered.  In scientific language, we have become neutral.  In short, we have compromised our national value.  Let us reclaim our true selves through equality and justice because education is a right entitled to all!

Lights, Camera, Arrested: Filming the Police Can be Risky Business

January 5, 2015

By: Brandon Pierce

Daniel Saulmon, charged with resisting, delaying, and obstructing an officer, spent four nights in a California jail—simply because he used a cell phone to film police officers on a public street.[1]  Fortunately, for Mr. Saulmon, his cell phone recording showed the exact opposite.  The video showed Saulmon being arrested only after he failed to provide the arresting officer with some form of identification.

Certainly that was not the first time a person attempted to film police officers in public.  The media has covered over and over and over and over again the developing trend of “citizen-journalists” using cell phones to film officers.  In many instances, police have barraged these citizens with demands to turn off their phones, have confiscated phones, and, like in Saulmon’s case, have arrested individuals who attempted to capture them on video.

Consider this: the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects our freedom of speech against governmental censorship.  Law enforcement officers are public officials, serving on behalf of the government.  So the right to film law enforcement without legal repercussions would seem like a legal no-brainer, correct?  Well, many courts are still split over that supposition, and are working to find some resolution.  The United States Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on the issue, after denying certiorari to Anita Alcarez v. ACLU of Illinois in 2012.[2]


Why is this happening?

In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois (ACLU) asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit that very question.[3]  The ACLU’s issue arose as a result of Illinois’s 1961 Eavesdropping Act.[4]  The statute prohibited the use of an eavesdropping device to record or hear any oral communication without “the consent of any communicating party.”  Violating the statute constituted a Class 4 felony, punishable with one to three years of imprisonment.[5]  However, law enforcement was granted even greater protection: violation of the statute against a police officer upgraded the charge to a Class 1 felony.  Thus, the punishment became more severe with a possible four to fifteen year prison sentence.  The ACLU challenged the statute’s constitutionality.  Ultimately, the Seventh Circuit held that the Act’s prohibition of openly filming police officers in public “burdens First Amendment rights directly, not incidentally.”[6]  Therefore, it is perfectly legal for citizens within the Seventh Circuit to record police officers performing their duties in public.

By contrast, in 2010, the Third Circuit refused to recognize filming the police in public as a First Amendment right.[7]  In that case, Brian Kelly was arrested for filming a police officer during a traffic stop.  The Pennsylvania Wiretap Act was used to justify the arrest.  The Act prohibits “the interception or recording of a conversation without the consent of all communicating parties.”[8]  When confronted with this issue, the Third Circuit held that due to “insufficient case law,” there was no right to videotape a police officer during a traffic stop.

The Importance of Your Right to Film the Police

Ensuring transparency within the law enforcement is a powerful public interest.  Filming the police affords valuable evidence of government misconduct, which is becoming easier to do each day.  Today’s technology has created multiple avenues for citizens to stream police conduct via Internet, often times, in a matter of seconds.

However, in states where courts have ruled in favor of the right to lawfully film police officers, there still exists the misconception that it is illegal.  That misconception was so pervasive that the New York City Police Department had to be reminded through an official memo circulated to each of its officers.  According to Daily News, the memo reminds officers that “members of the public are legally allowed to record police interactions,” and that “intentional interference such as blocking or obstructing cameras or ordering the person to cease constitutes censorship and also violates the First Amendment.”

Considering the national attention regarding police conduct, the NYPD’s memo is extremely timely, as more people are starting to film police interactions.  The public is more informed about how police officers are executing their duties when citizens are allowed to film and distribute police videos.  Additionally, it promotes accountability and transparency within civilian and law enforcement relations.  Ultimately, when police officers know they are being filmed, officer misconduct is less likely to occur.  Therefore, a citizen’s right to film the police is just and necessary; its legality, however, is still being debated throughout the nation.  For now, filming police officers in public places remains a risky business.



[3] ACLU v. Alvarez, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 9303 (2012).


[5] Illinois Compiled Statutes (ILCS) – 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-45.

[6] ACLU v. Alvarez, 2012 U.S. App. LEXIS 9303 (2012).

[7] 622 F.3d 248, 262 (3d Cir. 2010).

[8] 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5703.

Passion in the Law: Interning in Costa Rica with an Unexpected Ending

September 29, 2014

By: Brandon Pierce

Many law students are not sure which legal path they wish to pursue.  Until recently, I was one of those students, searching for my passion within the law.  Fortunately, I found that passion 5,000 miles away nestled in a Costa Rican rainforest.


Home of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica is a pluricultural and multiethnic country with a diversity of scenery, languages, and people.  [1]  But with that diversity comes an assortment of communal problems with generational impacts.  Those problems need attention, which is why I decided to work in such a diverse country.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.


I had the privilege this summer to intern with the C.R. Office of the Ombudsman, a public institution that protects the rights of Costa Rica’s citizens.  My assignments dealt with citizens’ rights in four areas: (1) education, (2) disability, (3) LGBTQ relations, and (4) minority groups, e.g. afro-descendants, indigenous tribes, etc.  My first day on the job included meeting with community leaders and attending sessions to educate citizens on the laws that impact them.  Work within these areas included visiting rural towns on high mountain peaks, interviewing foreign diplomats, and even sitting before the seven judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.


Costa Rica consists of eight indigenous groups that inhabit twenty-four territories and utilize seven legally recognized languages.  It wasn’t until I reached the small indigenous community of Shiroles that I realized the power of passion.  As my colleagues and I found ourselves trekking through a muddy Costa Rican rainforest, I never expected to find that “aha!” moment that inspired my future career path.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

Man-made houses, handwoven clothing, and raw nature made up the community I visited.  Instantaneously upon arrival, community leaders, students, and parents assembled to hear our group.  These individuals were concerned for the future of their community.  They wanted to voice their concerns on the threat of losing their culture, the contamination of their natural resources, and the government’s illegal deprivation of their land.  My job was to document their stories and educate them on the law that protects their culture.  Their stories involved matters we take for granted or may never experience.  In many instances, indigenous students are prohibited from using their native language in school, many domestic violence disputes go unreported, and agricultural companies pollute the natural water sources used to nourish communities.  Most indigenous communities inhabit their lands without legal title, that is, a government-issued document that demonstrate they own land.  Their lack of title is reasonable considering they have inhabited these lands for centuries, even before any form of government existed.

This lack of legal title makes these communities vulnerable to unlawful foreclosures.  Consequently, foreign corporations, tourists, and even the government, has illegally taken land from indigenous territories to develop more infrastructure.  This information we gathered was used to draft a complaint against the government.  Most of my initial interactions with the Shiroles people consisted of me speaking and receiving confused, unwelcoming stares in return.  Though discouraging at times, I continued to work with the people and tried to make some sort of connection.  After working for a week in the community, something remarkable happened on the last day.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

That day a student pulled me aside.  He explained to me the struggles of growing up feeling this his government does not care about his culture, ancestral history, or rights as a living being.  In the end, the student thanked me for being “a voice for us who have no voice.”  I was speechless.  The gratitude and satisfaction in knowing that I helped make a difference in someone’s life stays with me today.  With that humble encounter, I realized how I wanted to move my legal career forward.  It was there that I determined I would be a human rights attorney, a voice for those without a voice.


Oprah Winfrey once said, “Passion is energy.  Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

This euphoric quotation informs us all that our energy is derived from our passion.  If you believe the author, you would agree that without passion there can be no energy.   In a field that requires long work hours, such as law, there is undoubtedly a great amount of energy required.  Therefore, finding passion in one’s work is imperative.

I was privileged to sit with indigenous people, converse with community elders and sing with school children.  I was so blessed by those encounters while interning abroad and received more than I think I gave to them.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

I discovered that we are more alike than different, full of compassion rather than hate, and full of peace, not violence.  Through this internship, I discovered that human rights can awaken us to the power and worth of our own lives.  Then, it is our responsibility to use that power to fulfill our life’s purpose.

Ask yourself:  What job excites me?  What is the one thing I can’t stop thinking about?  An even harder question: If I had to do it for free, would I still do it?  Your passion lays in the answers to those questions.  My experiences in the Shiroles community helped to find my answers.  What will it take for you to find yours?

As you step onto your mark, and get set to find your career passion, there is only one thing left to say as you take the first step.  “Go!”

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