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Supreme Court to Decide Whether GPS Tracking Constitutes an “Unreasonable Search”

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in U.S. v. Jones, a case where modern technology meets the guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure” in the 4th Amendment. Specifically, the case raises the question: Do police need a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitor his behavior?

While some courts have applied the protections of the 4th Amendment to cases involving e-mail and cell phone use, the Supreme Court has yet to consider the implications of the police using common and current technology like GPS tracking.  In fact, two of the most recent precedents for this case are Kyllo v. U.S. (which held that police cannot use a thermal imaging device to “search” a suspect’s house without a warrant) and U.S. v. Knotts(a 1983 case dealing with police use of beepers).

The D.C. Court of Appeals held in this case that police must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS device to the suspects car and tracking his movement for weeks at a time.  Other district courts, however, have held that GPS tracking is no different than the permissible practice of a police “shadow surveillance,” which involves officers staking out and tailing a suspect. These judges reason that the GPS simply allows the officer to tail an individual more efficiently, and therefore, can be done without a warrant.

The New York Times is calling U.S. v. Jones “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade,” and certainly the Supreme Court’s holding may have widespread effects on the ability of law enforcement to use GPS and other modern technology for the surveillance of individuals.

Technology in the Classroom: Misguided Investment or Immeasurable Benefit?

As a new school year begins, an article in the New York Times considers a conundrum in the current push for the use of technology in the classroom. The article highlights Kyrene School District where, after major investments, the classes are “decked out with laptops, big interactive screens and software that drills students on every basic subject.” Despite the presence of cutting-edge technology, however, Kyrene has seen no improvement in their students’ math and reading scores. In fact, since the technological upgrade in 2005, the school’s scores have remained stagnant, while the statewide average has risen.

The article considers several possible explanations for stagnant scores in a tech-savvy school like Kyrene; many of which look to the way we assess educational progress in general. For example, while standardized tests reflect that the students at Kyrene have stagnated in past years, the tests do not show the subsequent improvement of students’ technological skills, which are arguably more important in the digital age. Proponents argues that “technology has inspired students and helped them grow, but that there is no good way to quantify those achievements.”

Further, the assessment of technology in the classroom underscores an important point: as the push for more technology increases, “computers are not intended to replace teachers.” To the districts that pour money into laptops and Smart Boards while cutting their budgets and laying off teachers, Bryan Goodwin, spokesman for Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning, points out: “Good teachers can make good use of computers, while bad teachers won’t, and they and their students could wind up becoming distracted by the technology.”

The ideal educational structure, it seems, is one where a teacher can use technological tools to engage with students, as a jumping off point for further discussion or independent analysis. This idea rings true when thinking of the classrooms that use FantasySCOTUS as a teaching tool. While Harlan Institute aims to provide resources that fit into history and civics curricula in the digital age, the important part happens in the classroom as students think critically about cases and respond with blog posts or as classes collaborate to predict the outcome of a case before casting their vote on the website. This year, we have also introduced the Podcast Badge, which allows students to record their responses to certain topics, and we hope some students will experiment with this medium and enhance their oral communication skills.

The National Constitution Center Features the Harlan Institute on Its Constitution Daily Blog

The National Constitution Center, whose extraordinary museum sits directly across from the birthplace of the Constitution in Philadelphia, recently noted the role that the Harlan Institute plays in bringing civics education to the modern classroom.  The NCC featured a blog post by Harlan Institute President and Co-Founder Josh Blackman in which Blackman discussed the success of FantasySCOTUS in teaching students about the Supreme Court, the Constitution and our legal system.  “What makes FantasySCOTUS.org so effective for pedagogical purposes,” Blackman wrote, “is that it is real.”

The NCC has clearly shown the need for a resurgence in civics education and the Harlan Institute is proud to share the NCC’s goal of bringing the Constitution to life in a fun and interactive medium with which students can relate.

Real Life FantasySCOTUS and Health Care Litigation

A recent opinion by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals declared unconstitutional a portion of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the official tongue-twisting name of the 2010 health care bill often referred to by its supporters and detractors as “Obamacare”). Because the 11th Circuit’s opinion is in direct conflict with a recent opinion by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the issue is now in a prime position for Supreme Court review, likely late in the coming October 2011 term.

The current litigation over the PPACA has demonstrated that Supreme Court prognostication is not just an educational tool limited to the Harlan Institute and FanstasySCOTUS.org; it also has consequential real-life applications. In a search for the correct answer on the constitutionality of the PPACA, the health care legal battle has thus far resulted in several other contrasting opinions: for example, in just the past year, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia struck down the Act while a judge in Western District of Virginia upheld it. These contradictory results serve as a useful reminder for students of the truth behind Yogi Berra’s oft-quoted adage that “it ain’t over ‘till it’s over” – particularly when it comes to the Supreme Court.

For instance, Professor Orin Kerr of the George Washington University Law School gave a useful example of this uncertainty when he predicted in a recent blog post on SCOTUSBlog.com that the Supreme Court would uphold the Act by a vote of somewhere between 8-1 and 6-3. While it may be frustrating for students (and lawyers, for that matter) to be unable to pin down a precise vote, Professor Kerr’s two-vote range illustrates an important point that students participating in FantasySCOTUS would do well to heed as they participate: FantasySCOTUS – and real-life Supreme Court prediction – can be as much art as it is science. In a February story, NPR’s Nina Totenberg illustrated the historical difficulty of deciding how the Supreme Court will eventually rule based on the tea-leaves of lower courts’ opinions. Totenberg notes that, while such opinions might be useful as guides to whether certain arguments will carry any weight with the Supreme Court (a point particularly apt in PPACA litigation), the ultimate lesson may simply be that students playing FantasySCOTUS should, “in short, assume nothing, at least until the U.S. Supreme Court rules.”

Allie Myers and Charles Kruly wrote this post.

New York Times Article Calls for a “Digital-Age Upgrade” in the American Classroom

recent opinion piece in the New York Times highlighted the need to revamp the traditional American classroom to meet the rapidly changing culture of technology. The article specifically focuses on the research of Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions, who sets the tone by pointing out that “65 percent of today’s grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet.”

While some educators curse the Internet as a distraction from learning and view evolving technology as an obstacle to overcome, Davidson suggests that embracing digital technology may be more useful for students in the long run. She proposes that teachers alter their methods by encouraging virtual collaboration and even calls into question one of the cornerstones (or nightmares) of any students’ education: the research paper. Davidson asks: “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school — the term paper — and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?”

Of course, not everyone’s embrace is so eager.  Nicholas Carr, in a recent Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, questioned the effect of the Internet – particularly its emphasis on short-form blog and news articles rather than more traditional long-form books and articles – on the way we think, read and process information.  Carr notes that the Internet  encourages “a different kind of reading, and behind [that] lies a different kind of thinking—perhaps even a new sense of the self.”

Davidson might respond, however, that this “different kind of reading” is part of digital literacy and that there is value in encouraging, rather than stifling, the skills gained by participating in Internet culture. She notes: “Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers.”

As students participate in blogging exercises as a part of FantasySCOTUS, I would be interested in hearing from teachers how the quality of their students’ contributions to the blog compares to that of more traditional written assignments. Is a student’s work about, say, James Madison substantially more engaged, well-written and creative simply because of the medium in which the student produced the assignment? Regardless, we look forward to seeing students engage with upcoming Supreme Court cases as they create blog posts and podcasts on FantasySCOTUS.org this fall.

This post was co-written by Allison Myers and Charlie Kruly.


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