Third annual Public Interest Retreat keynote speaker encourages students to become ‘citizen lawyers’

As Francisco M. Negron Jr. took the podium inside the Worrell Professional Center for the third annual Public Interest Retreat on Friday, March 2, 2012, his message was simple: “Do well while doing good.”

Negron, associate executive director and general counsel to the National School Board Association, said he wanted the practicing attorneys, faculty members and future lawyers in the room to remember the importance of being “citizen lawyers.” He also wanted them to know that it is possible to have a successful career while serving the interest of others.

“You are the future of our profession, and I believe that bright students like you are the heart of our profession,” Negron said. “A career in public interest law offers you the opportunity to touch a full gamut of law concepts like you would in a corporate setting, but you also have the opportunity to advocate for an organization that you are passionate about.”

Negron said he enjoys working in school law because he represents one of the largest employers in the country. He said he works with superintendents and school board members from across the country on issues that range from constitutional questions and contracts to employment concerns, special education laws and administrative policies. He said the work he does ultimately shapes the impact a single decision can have on the national scene.

“It’s our job to tell the court what it means for a district to pick a particular decision and how that will impact others,” Negron said. “Our amicus briefs are important because it helps the court understand the nuances of cases beyond what the parties involved have to say.”

Negron said not all of the cases that he handles involve education directly, but he said all of the cases offer his staff the opportunity to build relationships with members of the Supreme Court.

One example that Negron discussed during his 45-minute speech was a 2010 employment case where a police chief sued the city he worked for. Negron said the police chief argued that the town’s retaliation denied him an opportunity to file a grievance against the government.

Negron said his staff became the voice of public employees when they wrote the amicus brief because they wanted the court to understand that this was a grievance case between employer and employee, which removed it from the constitutional arena. Negron said had the court not known that fact, it could have threatened future grievances by employees.

“We may not have had a dog in the fight at first glance, but we wanted the court to understand the impact this decision would have on other employees with challenges to employment,” Negron said.

Another example that Negron referenced was the 2007 case, Morse v. Frederick. In this case, 18-year-old Frederick was suspended by Principal Morse for displaying a banner that read “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” during the 2002 Olympic Torch Relay. Frederick sued, claiming that the principal violated his First Amendment rights, and the Ninth Circuit court ruled in favor of the student.

Negron said his staff became interested in the case when that decision was made because they believed that the principal should not be held personally responsible. He said educators should receive immunity if they act in a “reasonable way.” He also said the decision was important because it could have had an impact on property tax dollars as school systems across the country spent more money on legal fees.

In the end, Negron said the United States Supreme Court heard the NSBA’s concerns and reversed the decision. He said the Supreme Court argued that educators can suppress student speech at a school if that speech promotes illegal drug use because it has to do with the students’ welfare.

“As these examples show, school law is a truly dynamic field that has a real impact on many national issues,” Negron said. “If you love constitutional law, this job may be perfect because it allows you the opportunity to explore that interest and craft possible solutions.”

Negron went on to say that the public interest arena offers students many other opportunities to make a difference.

“Today’s conversation is just a glimpse into the exciting field of education law, but education law is not the only work in non-profit law. There are hundreds of opportunities out there at organizations and associations throughout the country, so don’t be afraid to explore your passions.”