BYU’s Education Law and Policy Institute hosts a “rich conversation” with ed policy professionals
Read Time: 4 minutes

Group of BYU students and professors stand with Judge Smith after the conferenceMichael A. Rebell, JD, and Judge William E. Smith, JD, have differing perspectives on Cook v. McKee, the landmark education rights case in which both are involved—Rebell as an attorney representing Rhode Island students arguing their Constitutional right to a civic education in school, and Smith as the federal district judge who dismissed their claim last year while strongly affirming the value of civics education in a complex democratic society (the plaintiffs announced in January they plan to appeal the case).

However, in a joint appearance at BYU’s recent Education Law and Policy conference, Smith and Rebell agreed that current events are a “wakeup call” for educational institutions and courts to teach the younger generation their civic responsibilities. Smith and Rebell were invited to BYU’s Education Law and Policy conference as panelists to speak on the intersection of public education, American democracy, and the courts.

During the virtual event, which was attended by over 100 people, Smith, justice of the United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, affirmed “this conference comes at an incredibly important time in history,” with democratic institutions and practices under attack. Although Smith stated that the “guardrails of democracy have held up over the last two years,” he and Rebell both shared statistics highlighting a decline in trust in democratic institutions, especially in the younger generation, and an increase in concerns over misinformation and violence surrounding civic issues.

Both panelists suggested solutions to these compelling concerns. “We need to do more to make our young people knowledgeable about what democracy is,” said Rebell, professor of law and educational practice and executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at Columbia University Teachers College. “They not only can participate in it, but they also have a responsibility to participate in it.” He added that the courts and educational institutions must work together in “good faith efforts to promote common values in our communities, our states, and at national levels.”

Smith agreed. “It is critical that we support in every way we can educational institutions in their efforts to promote citizenship by teaching basic civics, values of citizenship, understanding of how misinformation works, and how to communicate with each other without demonizing those who think differently than you.” Smith detailed some of the current efforts to support these solutions but warned that “we have an enormous amount of work to do.”

Other topics covered during the discussion include what a good civic education should include, how diversity can strengthen or polarize the country, and how schools and courts can confront misinformation. During the discussion, attendees were able to ask questions and interact with the panelists, allowing Smith and Rebell to provide valuable insights.

“Creating a sustainable democracy comes down to all of you that are in the world of education,” Smith said. “The courts can be a good partner with you, but we need to do the hard work now.”

To watch the conference, contact Spencer Weiler.

To learn more about Cook v. McKee, visit


Writer: Alysha Rummler

Media contact: Cindy Glad