Judge Teaches Humanities Students About Constitutional Rights

Judge Orenstein explains First Amendment rights to Humanities students.  Photo Credit: Ihtsham Chaudhry

Judge Orenstein explains First Amendment rights to Humanities students. Photo Credit: Ihtsham Chaudhry


Magistrate Judge James Orenstein visited Midwood’s Humanities students on May 2 in room 273 to help them understand their constitutional rights. Students learned about various Supreme Court cases and how the court’s ruling affects them as high school students.

The discussion included famous cases on segregation in school such as Brown v. Board of Education, which shows how it is important for people to be active to win civil liberties, and Plessy v. Ferguson, which shows how even the Supreme Court can rule unjustly and against the basic rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution.

“Most people aren’t encountering the courts in their daily lives and don’t appreciate how central a role the court plays in our society,” said Judge Orenstein. “So the idea is that judges go out to engage with people where they are to talk about what the law means in their lives so people understand they have a role to play.”

Students also learned about court cases that centered on First Amendment rights such as freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.  

Judge Orenstein said, “Your voice counts just as much as anyone else’s. When somebody uses the power of the government to say your voice counts less than someone else’s, then that’s a problem under the First Amendment.”

In Tinker v. Des Moines, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of students wearing black armbands to school to protest against the Vietnam War.

“The reason public schools can’t limit your say, but private schools can, is because the school board is made up of government officials,” said Judge Orenstein. “If they say that you can’t express that view, that is the government limiting your speech, and that is something that the First Amendment has a say about.” 

However, the First Amendment only protects you from the government, he explained. 

“If you go to a private school and the principal says ‘you can’t say that,’ that is a private actor, and it may be frustrating for the students, but it’s not a First Amendment issue because it’s not the government doing it,” he said.

The judge continued, “The ideas of the Constitution go well back before the Revolution as ways of protecting against abuses of power by the government. The basic idea is that the Constitution creates power and the Bill of Rights limits it.”

It is extremely challenging for a judge to rule strictly according to the Constitution and without bias, but it is the responsibility of judges to uphold the law, he said.

“One of the more basic challenges is finding the right balance between making sure everyone’s voice is heard fully and making sure everyone’s cases are resolved in an efficient way,” Judge Orenstein said. “All [of the courtroom staff are] working not to make a profit but to make sure that the eight million people who live in this judicial district have a fair and peaceful way to solve their problems.”

“Protecting the freedoms of individuals is one of the goals that all judges aspire to achieve,” he said.

“You need that person who sort of figures out what the rules are so you don’t just have arguments,” he said. “That’s what the law is: It’s a way to have fairness, and if you’re the judge, you are the only one who is right. It’s a real luxury.”

These court cases concerning the rights of individuals and protection from the government are important to high schoolers because we are the generation that fixes the problems left from our parents’ generation, Judge Orenstein said.

“Don’t wait for the bad thing to happen to you,” he said. “Look at what’s happening to your neighbors and community, and if you see something you don’t like, don’t say ‘there is already a law,’ go out and make the change. Don’t wait for problems to be solved until they’re your problem. That’s how you make rights real.”

FeaturesCasey Levinson