Classroom to Court Trial


Elizabeth Clark, Reporter

In 1789, the First Amendment was written, ensuring citizens the right to practice the religion of their choice, to speak their minds freely, to write and publish freely, and to assemble and petition, all free from persecution or harassment from the government. However, over the last 230 years, the limits of this amendment remain contentiously debated and litigated across the country. Interested in determining these limits within a modern context in Nebraska, a Nebraska Wesleyan University course on news reporting staged a mock trial, as a part of a lecture on free speech and press freedom and the result was shocking.

The mock trial in question was a fluidly orchestrated event. The student jurors filed into the classroom to take their seats, the prosecutor gathered her notecards to begin her opening statement, and the professor took he seat quietly, anxious to observe the thrilling court scene. Of course, the trial concerned a case of a Mr. Thomas Hudson being put on trial for his and his ex-wife’s alleged endangerment of his prepubescent son. Reporters were called to the witness stand to give testimony, and after deliberation, decided whether the child was in immediate danger.

The cast consisted of one student as the judge, a student as the defendant Thomas Hudson, another as plaintiff Randy Bates, and two students as the attorneys for both the plaintiff and defendant. As the subject matter of the course is news reporting, many of the students acted as if they were cutting edge journalists reporting the events of the trial to the public. Everybody else in the class made up the jury. While the judge, defendant, and plaintiff had scripts, the lines from everybody else involved were impromptu.

In the case, Thomas Hudson was being accused by witnesses and at least one news reporter of domestic abuse after filing a kidnapping lawsuit. He had divorced his wife recently, having admitted that “[h]e may have rushed into a marriage too quickly”, and she allegedly was abusing their 3-year-old son, Johnny, physically. Ms. Hudson, who was not present in this activity, got drunk frequently (becoming “very aggressive, very abusive” in such cases) and sometimes “set a lit cigarette on him”. After the divorce, she got to see Johnny on weekends, which was later amended to once a week, never asking for additional help in the meantime. When she kept him at her residence for longer than the court orders, Mr. Hudson, who denied any abuse of Johnny, filed a kidnapping lawsuit

One of the eyewitnesses who was present at the scene and met the family, concurred the ex’s horrific abuse. Ms. Hudson had another daughter from a different marriage, and said daughter was provided with alcohol frequently. In addition, Johnny reportedly “[couldn’t] get far enough away from [his mother]” and had at least one scar visible.

The plaintiff opined that Johnny was not in danger, but another journalist, who had opted to cover the story, said otherwise, due to the amount of physical and mental trauma involved. The judge, bailiff, and foreman went into the hallway to deliberate.

While they were out, it was confirmed that, going by Nebraska law, regardless of the outcome, both the plaintiff and the son have the right to keep their identities protected if they so choose. After deliberating for eleven minutes, the court ruled that Johnny was in fact in danger, but due to the nature of the case, it was to be redacted to protect the witnesses.

While the verdict of the case is important, as many of the character witnesses for the plaintiff were journalists, it also speaks to the importance of uninhibited free speech not only in Nebraska, but in the country at large. The ability of journalists to honestly report the course of events accurately and honestly in courtrooms, while also protecting the vulnerable individual involved in such horrific events, such as the child abuse seen in this mock trial, is vital. Without free speech and free press, the public would not be informed or aware of the events in localities, states, and within the country.