As a resident alien, high school student Olga Nunez doesn't like the contents of the letter she's reading one bit.
"Your name was brought to our attention because, among other things, you came to Michigan on a visa from a country where there are groups that support, advocate, or finance international terrorism," the letter says.
Olga isn't the actual recipient of the letter, mailed last November to some 560 Middle Eastern men living in the US as part of the Sept. 11 terror probe. But she and two dozen classmates at Charlestown High School in Boston are reading it together while debating the war on terror's impact on civil liberties.
"I'd feel offended," Olga says to the circle of students. "They say they're not accusing you, but I feel like they are." A classmate disagrees: "It's not singling them out. It's going back to where it started."
Airing such differences of opinion is the purpose of the discussion, part of an American Bar Association (ABA) initiative to spark public conversations about law and liberty.
With civic education having been on the decline for decades in many schools around the country, attorneys have stepped into the gap one class session at a time since the Sept. 11 attacks.
US Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, concerned about what he viewed as a lack of "moral outrage" among some students after the attacks, came up with the idea of lawyers visiting schools to talk with students about core democratic values.
Justice Kennedy, joined by other prominent public figures such as Sen. Edward Kennedy and Laura Bush, the first lady, asked students at several schools he visited to imagine visiting a hypothetical country where a charismatic speaker preaches hatred of the United States. Students are asked to think of ways to tell people in that country about why they should care about people in the US.
In addition to Kennedy's "Dialogue on Freedom," the American Bar Association created a broader program designed to encourage students and the public at large to discuss issues ranging from American identity and culture to the prosecution of people accused of terrorism. Lawyers and others can download "conversation starters" from the ABA website, including political cartoons and excerpts from speeches and documents from the Civil War to today. (www.abanet.org/publiced)
As the new school year got under way, volunteer lawyers from the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) fanned out to lead public-school discussions based on the ABA program, Conversations on Law & Liberty in Times of Crisis.
"There is a wonderfully exciting renewed interest in the boundaries between constitutional rights and issues of national security," says Margaret Marshall, chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and one of the participants in a recent discussion with students at a Boston high school.
That's why Boston attorney Amy Cashore took a break from her job representing businesses to visit Charlestown High School last month.
Her audience, a two-year "Law & Justice" class, put aside its regular lessons about juvenile courts for the day. "I love talking with kids about law," says Ms. Cashore, who chairs the MBA's section for young lawyers. "They always have an interesting take."
Ms. Cashore starts the session off by asking what civil liberties Americans have. Standing at a dry-erase board, she calls on students who raise their hands, and they blurt out their answers: free speech, religion, freedom of the press.
After she asks students to think about the television show "Law & Order," they add a few more items to their list: the right to silence when arrested and the right to an attorney.
The conversation becomes more animated after students read a copy of the letter mailed to Middle Eastern visa holders in Michigan.
Cashore asks if the letter's recipients have a civic duty to come forward. Should friends or family members of terror suspects be targeted for investigation, too? Should people from abroad have the same legal protections that US citizens enjoy?
The class is divided. "If you have to follow US laws when you come here, you should get protections," one student says. Another responds, "We didn't invite them here."
Cashore builds up suspense by waiting until the end of class to finally explain how the rights of visa holders compare with those of citizens.
She was pleased with the debate, she says after class. "They get an understanding of why the liberties we have are so important. They've learned people have different views than they do."
Senior Teakia Brown says she enjoyed the discussion because "it was very relevant to what's going on," adding, "It's important that we treat people fairly."
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