Law professor confronts apathy

Burton Caine sees inconsistent stances on First Amendment rights in students.

Caine holds “Secrets” by Daniel Ellsberg, what he calls a significant text to free speech. | Erin Edinger-Turoff TTN
Caine holds “Secrets” by Daniel Ellsberg, what he calls a significant text to free speech. | Erin Edinger-Turoff TTN

Burton Caine is known to the state and federal government as a troublemaker, according to his FBI file – a photocopy of which sits on his office desk in the Klein Law Building on Main Campus.

The law professor, who has taught full time at Temple since 1977, teaches the courses Constitutional Law and First Amendment. He’s taught in Israel, China and Japan, where he said he often makes comparisons to the constitutional laws of other countries. Sometimes, however, he said teaching American constitutional law is a matter of comparing the written system of law to the actions actually taken within the legal system.

Caine is no stranger to being a controversial thinker. During the Vietnam War, he defended protestors and accused draft dodgers. In 1998, he defended a Nazi march in Philadelphia for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“I talk about civil liberties and the guarantee of individual liberty,” Caine said. “Unfortunately, it’s often contrasted with what we actually do in the United States.”

The state of law in America is troubling, Caine said. As a defense lawyer who is the former head of the ACLU, Caine is a staunch defender of First Amendment rights, with particular attention to the freedom of speech.

The current collegiate generation, he said, has an inconsistent stance on the First Amendment rights of American citizens because they were raised in an environment that does not reflect the standards set by the First Amendment.

Caine said it isn’t always simple to convince students that legal rights should be upheld to the fullest.

“Most people don’t believe in constitutional rights,” Caine said. “They’ll give you a list of what they like and what they don’t like. The way I start my First Amendment course, I hand out a questionnaire and I say, ‘The First Amendment says all speech should be protected. However, if you think there’s any speech that should not be protected, write exactly what you don’t think should be protected and why.’”

One of the only people to express full support of the First Amendment rights in one of his surveys, Caine said, was a woman in her 90s at an assisted living facility where he’d given a speech. She wrote that all speech should be protected, with no exceptions.

“Uniformly, the students don’t believe in the First Amendment,” Caine said.

He said he believes this is due to generational circumstances. The Bush Administration’s establishment of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp is a particularly striking example, Caine said, of why young people today have misconceptions of true liberty.

He is particularly passionate about the MOVE housing bombing of 1985, when the Philadelphia Police Department dropped a bomb on an Osage Avenue row home after a standoff. Eleven members of the back-to-the-earth, separationist movement lived in the home.

“The MOVE situation was one of the most dramatic denials of constitutional law you can imagine,” Caine said. “The right to life.”

When Ramona Africa, the sole living survivor of the bombing, spoke on Main Campus on Oct. 31, Caine said he was shocked that more people didn’t attend or support Africa.

“I asked one [faculty member] what she thought and she said, ‘I’m conflicted because I see the right and wrong on both sides,’” Caine said. “I said, ‘What was the right of the government? What if [MOVE] was [the mob]? We’d call it murder.’”

One of his students, Rebecca Cole, is a third-year graduate law student who finds his First Amendment course to be highly valuable.

“Personally, I think it’s more interesting and more important,” Cole said. “You can talk to anyone about the First Amendment and they’ll say, ‘Yeah, freedom of speech.’ You can’t have a conversation with someone on the street about, say, tax law.”

Cole said she believes taking Caine’s class has affirmed her strong belief in constitutional law and civil liberties, but said not all of her classmates are as engaged as she wishes they would be.

“People have an inaccurate view of it sometimes because they think they know about it,” Cole said. “Professor Caine has opened my eyes to it. There’s more to than what basic knowledge encompasses.”

Caine recalled recently trying to send an email to a colleague about an article he was working on. He was surprised by a pop-up message on the university computer that advised he “consider toning it down.”

He immediately took a photo, which now hangs on a corkboard next to his desk.

“The most basic right is the right to be left alone,” Caine said.

His students didn’t seem concerned when he informed them of the pop-up, he remembered. This worried him immensely, but Cole offered a perspective that was aligned with Caine’s generational theory of apathy as explanation.

“The circumstances of the times in previous generations – wars and civil movements – make [free speech] more tangible and valuable to them,” Cole said. “Whereas we, growing up with social networking and Facebook, we understand we’re going to be censored one way or another, and we kind of accept it.”

Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at or on Twitter @erinJustineET. 

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