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Civil Discourse: Social Media and Cyberbullying

A federal judge facilitates this 90-minute distance-learning activity to stimulate critical thinking and foster civil discourse skills.

Civil Discourse and COVID-19 is a distance-learning version of the Civil Discourse and Difficult Decisions federal courts’ national initiative. The virtual program – like the courtroom program – cultivates legal skills as life skills in high school and college students. Federal judges preside over these simulated court hearings. They are not mock trials, but realistic approximations of court hearings. All learning styles are involved, and all students participate as attorneys, then as jurors who grapple with teen-relevant legal issues.

The fictional scenario in this virtual activity is based on the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Elonis v. U.S. It was the court’s first social media cyberbullying case.

About These Resources

Start with the Activity Download (doc) to find the agenda and all of the resources needed to prepare for and conduct the virtual hearing.

Roles and Resources

This activity requires a federal judge presiding and no fewer than 25 high school or college students. The virtual program can accommodate up to 100 students.

  • Federal Judge: Manages the program, presides over the simulation, and converses with the students at the end of the event. 
  • Students and Teacher in Advance: Read the designated materials on their own (about 10 minutes). The teacher assigns students to two groups – Group #1 represents Andy Jackson and Group #2 represents the government. In their respective groups they identify the arguments on the Arguments Worksheet (doc) that favor their position. They make their arguments to the judge (doc) in the virtual hearing.
  • Student Attorneys: During the virtual experience, all students serve as attorneys who argue before the judge on behalf of their client – either Andy Jackson or the government – using the microphone function and the chat box.
  • Student Jurors: After the arguments, all students become jurors who deliberate on the issues, and come to a decision. Due to time constraints, the verdict does not have to be unanimous, but jurors should be prepared to explain the rationale for their decisions.

What’s Different About This Activity?

The activity is different from a mock trial in the following ways:

  • The courtroom experience approximates a realistic hearing on a newsworthy issue.
  • The focus is on civil discourse and inclusion of all learning styles.
  • All students are attorneys and jurors who interact with the presiding federal judge.
  • The program wraps up with a candid conversation with the judge on any topic.

Time Commitment

Teachers and Students: Fifteen minutes of reading the advance materials. No rehearsal, additional reading, or research. Students and teachers just review the web materials posted in the Activity Download. In advance of the event, teachers organize students into two groups of approximately equal number – Group #1 and Group #2.

Virtual Courtroom Program: Approximately 90 minutes – from introduction to adjournment.

Learning Objectives

  • Students interact with the human face of the judiciary – a federal judge – and have the opportunity to ask about and discuss issues of importance to them.
  • Student evaluations show that the virtual experience successfully exposes students to the judiciary and the judicial process in ways that counter entertainment stereotypes. The experience also motivates young people to serve willingly on juries when called.

What Happens in the Courtroom Program?

  1. Civil Discourse Skill Building: Students gain insights when they discuss their responses to the civility self-reflection tool with the presiding judge.
  2. Courtroom Simulation: Students serve as lawyers who develop and present arguments to the judge, then they serve as jurors who use civil discourse skills to come to a verdict.
  3. Q/A Session with the Presiding Judge: The program concludes with a candid conversation with the judge on topics of the students’ choosing.

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.