Main content

Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions

This activity gives participants experience with civil discourse skills and complex decision making.

Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions is a national initiative of the federal courts that brings high school, college, and law school students into federal courthouses for legal proceedings that arise from situations in which young people can find themselves. In these court hearings (not mock trials), students serve as attorney advocates who argue the case and as jurors who listen to the arguments, then actively deliberate in the courtroom. In some programs, judges may invite several students to sit on the bench with them and ask questions of the student attorneys.

In the activity, a relatable fictional scenario is superimposed on a Supreme Court decision. Elonis v. U.S. deals with social media issues. It is geared to high school and college students. A related case, Counterman v. Colorado, deals with the same issues and can be used in addition to Elonis when conducting hearings with law school students. Other cases for high school and college levels are New Jersey v. TLOTexas v. Johnson, and Tinker v. Des Moines.

About These Resources

Get started by downloading the agenda and complete activity package (doc). This activity can be used with any case in the Educational Resources section. In this program, Elonis v. U.S. is the landmark case.

Roles and Resources

This activity includes a tailored description and detailed guidance for each role:

  • Facilitator (doc): The facilitator manages the courtroom program and gives everyone an opportunity to speak during the jury deliberations.
  • Judge (doc): The host judge presides over the simulation and converses with the students in the courtroom after the event. 
  • Volunteer Attorney Coaches
  • Students
    • Attorneys (doc): These students present arguments before the judge.
    • Jurors (doc): These students deliberate and work toward an evidence-based decision.

What’s Different About This Activity?

The centerpiece is jury deliberations in which students practice the civil discourse skills they observe and learn from the judge and attorneys in a courtroom. The activity is different from a mock trial in the following ways:

  • The Courtroom Experience is a Realistic Hearing on a Timely Issue
  • The Focus is on Jury Deliberations Involving All Students and Learning Styles
  • Students Observe, Learn, Practice Civil Discourse Skills with a Judge and Lawyers
  • Participants Analyze Everyday Decisions That Could Have Long-Term Consequences
  • Students Have a Candid Conversation with a Judge on Any Topic of Concern

Time Commitment

Teachers' time commitment: No classroom preparation for students or teachers. All preparation is incorporated into the courtroom event.

Courtroom Program: Approximately three hours – from orientation to adjournment.

Note to Teachers: There is no reading or pre-court preparation on the part of students or their teachers. All preparation is incorporated into the courtroom event.

Learning Objectives

  • Students leave the program before lunchtime with sharpened tools for civil discourse and decision making.
  • They have a heightened awareness of situations they may not realize can have legal and long-term consequences.
  • They experience the differences between media portrayals and real courtroom situations.
  • They interact with the human face of the justice system – judges, attorneys, and other professionals – and they gain exposure to careers in the courts.
  • Their courtroom experience motivates them to serve willingly on juries when called.

What Happens in the Courtroom Program?

  1. Reality Check Quiz and Discussion Starter
    Students start by taking an attention-getting Reality Check Quiz (doc) that tests their knowledge of situations that can put them in legal jeopardy.

  2. Civil Discourse Skill Building
    This activity has two parts:

    • Students fill out a civility self-reflection tool to prompt self awareness and discussion.
    • Participants are guided through a process for establishing ground rules and group norms for civil discussion. 
  3. Courtroom Simulation
    Student jurors are featured in the program as they decide a contemporary Supreme Court case that is modified with a scenario that applies to their lives. The abbreviated hearing gives them a realistic experience of what happens in court.

  4. Reality Check Discussion
    The program concludes with a candid conversation with the host judge about the real-life scenarios in the Reality Check Quiz (doc) – situations in which law-abiding people can find themselves facing legal and long-term consequences.

DISCLAIMER: These resources are created by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts for educational purposes only. They may not reflect the current state of the law, and are not intended to provide legal advice, guidance on litigation, or commentary on any pending case or legislation.