From "stand-your-ground" and "open carry" laws to police shootings and responses to bullying, the legal limits of self-defense have never been fuzzier. Sensationalized media reports further confuse and complicate the issues. Students' interpretations of the controversies have real-life consequences, especially for young people of color.
This lesson uses media analysis, group discussion and persuasive writing to help students make sense of the legal reality. They'll sort through stereotypes and prejudices as they examine the role of storytelling in the legal system. This in-depth exploration will focus on a single case as it is presented in the documentary Out in the Night. The film looks at a 2006 case in which a group of young, low-income, African-American lesbians were accused of gang assault and attempted murder.
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Approximately 90 minutes.
By the end of this lesson, students will:
- Know the legal definition of "self-defense" in their state.
- Understand that stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination influence the way the law is applied.
- See at least three different presentations of the same evidence and consider how each influences the way they think about guilt and innocence.
- Discuss the influence of media reporting on criminal prosecution.
- See an example of real-life consequences of homophobia, racism and sexism (including the common practice of men "cat-calling" or verbally harassing women on the street).
- Write short, persuasive essays.
- Practice note taking.
Prep for Teachers
A NOTE TO TEACHERS
This film contains mature content. If you suspect that parents/guardians might be concerned about the subject matter, you may want to send home a note prior to the lesson explaining that students will view clips with mature content, and will also examine a legal case involving a group of lesbians who were accused of assault. You can make it clear that the lesson is not about sex and does not ask students to adhere to any particular view of LGBTQ rights. Rather, the focus is on the meaning of the legal concept of "self-defense," and the effects of stereotypes, beliefs and choices made by prosecutors and reporters about the way they present a case. Invite family members to connect home with school by asking what the students learned and sharing their own views.
Film clips and equipment on which to show them
Your state's legal definition of "self-defense"
1. Introduce Self-Defense
Ask students what they know about the legal doctrine of self-defense. Use probing questions that help students consider how the issue shows up in their own lives (e.g., "If a person disrespects you, can you hit him or her?"). You might also ask if they know of any cases in the news recently where self-defense was asserted and whether the defendant was acquitted based on the claim. Continue the discussion until everyone understands the basic parameters of self-defense:
Generally a person may use reasonable force when it appears reasonably necessary to prevent an impending injury. A person using force in self-defense should use only so much force as is required to repel the attack. As a matter of public policy, the physical force or violence associated with self-defense is considered an acceptable response to aggression. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Self-Defense
Some aspects of the law, such as whether a person must try to escape before resorting to violent self-defense, or whether a person is permitted to stand his or her ground, vary by state. Let your students know (or, if time allows, let them research) what the specific terms are in your state.
2. Introduce the Film and the Task
Explain that students are going to look at a case in which a claim of self-defense plays out in real life. They are going to view, analyze and discuss a series of clips from a documentary called Out in the Night. The film is about a 2006 case in which a group of young women from Newark, New Jersey were charged with assault, gang assault and attempted murder.
Their task will be to decide whether the claim of self-defense was justified and how the evidence was presented and how the presentation influenced their thinking. To help with that task, they will be taking notes. Instruct them to divide their notes into three sections as they write:
Facts: Key factual evidence
Filmmaking: Techniques used by the maker of the documentary to influence how the viewer interprets the evidence
Feelings: How the clips made them feel, including references to specific techniques employed by journalists, lawyers or the filmmaker that evoked those emotions
Students will take notes individually, but they will discuss each clip in small groups. In order for that discussion to begin immediately following viewing, divide the class into small groups before you start the first clip.
3. Clip 1
Show the first clip. In the follow-up discussion, invite students to share their notes, along with their initial impressions about whether this was a case of justifiable self-defense. Listen in on group discussions and make a mental note of any important ancillary issues that come up (e.g., the notion of being "disrespected as a man" or responses to street harassment). So as not to take too much time between clips, save these issues for later full-class discussion.
4. Clip 2
Repeat the viewing and discussion process. This time, ask students if their initial conclusions about self-defense changed or were affirmed. Also, invite students to begin noticing patterns in their notes: Did everyone in the group pay attention to the same things? What did others notice that they did not and vice versa?
5. Clip 3
Repeat the viewing and discussion process. Invite students to pay special attention to any differences in their notes or conclusions for each of the three presentations of the story.
For these clips, reconvene as a full class rather than in small groups. Prior to showing the next clips, ask members of the full group what they've noticed so far and what they've learned about how variations in storytelling influence viewers' opinions and how they might influence what jurors think as well. Point out that our adversarial court system is designed to have jurors hear at least two different versions of events.
Show both clips. Invite students to share their initial reactions. Ask them to imagine that they are jurors in this case. How would they determine which version of events they believed? What evidence is most convincing and why?
Segue into a discussion of the important ancillary issues that arose during small-group discussions by asking, "What did you learn about the ways in which personal beliefs about things like race, economic status, gender and sexual orientation influence interpretations of evidence?" or "Do you think the case would have been prosecuted or covered differently if the young women were not black or were not lesbians?" Then take some time to allow students to discuss and process key issues that arose for them in connection with this case (e.g., Have they ever been falsely accused of something or verbally harassed on the street?).
Allow students time to reflect and synthesize by returning to their notes. Have them summarize the most important observations they made in each of the three areas (Facts, Filmmaking, Feelings). You can collect these summaries and use them to evaluate what students learned from the exercise.
8. Clip 5 and Wrap-Up
This final step returns to the question of self-defense. As homework, assign each student to write a persuasive essay arguing either for or against acquittal for the women in the film on the basis of self-defense (or, if you want to be creative or add speaking skills, have them craft and deliver mock closing statements either as the defense or as the prosecution). Be sure they include the legal definition of self-defense in their essays and illustrate their positions with specific evidence. In light of what they learned about how presentation relates to interpretation, invite them to pay special attention to the way they frame the case.
As a prompt for their essay writing, play and discuss Clip 5.
1. Investigate reports of cases in which stand-your-ground was used as a defense. Analyze how the race and gender of those involved may have played into the verdict.
2. Debate whether or not the permissibility of lethal self-defense is different for police officers than for civilians.
3. Write a school policy on permissible ways to defend oneself from bullies.
4. Find an organization in your community that works to end gay bashing and homophobia and volunteer to help.
5. Become a media watchdog that challenges journalists whose reporting is more inflammatory than informative on issues related to race, sexuality, gender or youth.
6. Engage your class in a discussion about safety and ways to prevent unsafe situations. Have students break into small groups and have groups develop game plans to employ if they find themselves in an unsafe situation, then share and discuss their plans with the class as a whole. Introduce students to the Circle of 6 app (www.circleof6app.com/), a free app that connects users with friends to stay close, stay safe and prevent violence before it happens. As a homework assignment, have each student identify six people he or she can reach out to if in an unsafe situation, then share the game plan with those and ask them to join the student's "Circle of 6."