Lessons

Standing Ground: Eminent Domain and Just Compensation Rights

The border fence along Oklahoma Avenue

The border fence along Oklahoma Ave. in Brownsville on Aug. 11, 2017. Image by Martin do Nascimento. United States, 2017.

The border fence along Oklahoma Ave. in Brownsville on Aug. 11, 2017. Image by Martin do Nascimento. United States, 2017.

Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • cite evidence from a text and video to support their claims about when the use of eminent domain is justified and who does/does not tend to receive just compensation for seized land
  • use an investigative story and legal documents to create a resource that outlines and advocates for the rights of their community members under eminent domain law

Warm-up:

1. What is your most prized possession? Why?

2. Imagine that a representative of the government knocks on your door and tells you that your most prized possession is of critical importance to the national security of the entire country. You must turn it over to the representative. You will, however, be compensated.

3. On one side of a sheet of notebook paper, create a list of everything that makes this possession valuable, including both tangible and intangible factors. At the top of this list, write the name of the possession. On the other side, determine what you would consider fair compensation for that aspect of value.

4. Share your list with a partner. As you discuss your lists, imagine yourself into the role of the government representative. What compensation from your own resources would you be willing to give your partner for their prized possession?

5. Discuss as a class:

  • How would you feel if you were asked to turn over your most prized possession?
  • Would it possible to fairly compensate you for this possession? If so, how? If not, why not?
  • Did you and your partner agree on what fair compensation for your prized possession would be? How would you feel if you were forced to accept their offer?

Introducing the Lesson:

You have just experienced a small-scale case of eminent domain. Eminent domain is the government’s power and authority to seize privately held land for public use--that is, to benefit the greater society.

Although the government has the authority to seize any property it appropriates for public use, it is required under the Fifth Amendment to provide “just compensation.”

Today, we will explore a case of eminent domain gone awry. News media outlets ProPublica and The Texas Tribune worked together to investigate and expose the United States federal government’s mishandled seizures of land from Texans to construct a border fence in 2007. In order to arrive at a better understanding of our own rights and to empower others over theirs, we will focus our lesson on three key questions surrounding every eminent domain controversy:

  1. What uses of seized private land are in the public interest?
  2. What is just compensation?
  3. Who receives just compensation, who doesn’t, and why?

Introducing Resource 1: “The Taking: Oklahoma Avenue”

1. Answer the attached questions while watching the video:

2. Discuss as a class:

  • What new information did you gain by watching the video?
  • What information did the written story contain that the video left out?
  • Did watching the video change how you felt about the story?
  • Why do you think these journalists chose to tell this story both in writing and with video?

3. With a partner, choose a quote from the written story to caption each video still below. You can choose a quote from an interview, writing by the journalists, or a combination of the two. In 5 minutes, be ready to share your captions.

Still of border fence

Still of border fence

Still of border fence

Still of American flag

Still of American flag

Still of American flag

Still of aerial border

Still of aerial border

Still of aerial border

Discussion and Activity:

Discuss as a class, referring back to your notes and hard copies of the story to cite textual evidence in support of your claims:

1. What uses of seized private land are in the public interest?

Discussion:

  • What opinions on the construction of a border wall do people interviewed in the story express?
  • Does a border wall constitute a legitimate use for land seized under eminent domain? Why or why not?
  • Recall the story’s treatment of the Kelo v. City of New London case. What did the government argue? What were people’s objections?
  • Knowing that, although Kelo’s land was seized, it was never developed, would you say that this was a legitimate exercise of eminent domain?
  • In your opinion, are there circumstances under which the development of a hotel, more housing, and office space would constitute a legitimate use for land seized under eminent domain?

Activity:

Identify a partner sitting next to you. You will receive a series of proposed projects on slips of paper from your teacher. You will have one minute to discuss with your partner whether this project would be a legitimate reason to exercise eminent domain and why or why not. Be prepared to share one of your answers with the class.

2. What is just compensation?

  • Imagine the government has decided that adding a lane onto the road in front of your house or apartment building would improve traffic for your entire town and would thus be a good public use. What would the tangible and intangible costs be for your family if you were forced to move?
  • Who is ultimately compensating private property owners for land seized under eminent domain? (Hint: the answer can be found in the “major findings” section of the story.)
  • According to the story, what processes are supposed to be in place to ensure that the landowner and the taxpayer’s assets are both being treated fairly? Why didn’t they work in this case?

3. Who receives just compensation, who doesn’t, and why?

  • What do property owners need to do to get a larger settlement for their land?
  • Why do many people not do what would allow them to get a larger settlement?
  • What would need to change for more people to be able to access just compensation?

Extension Activities:

Option 1.

There are differing eminent domain laws at the federal, state, and even local level. Today, we have explored a case of federal law since the public use was a national security project under the federal agency Homeland Security. Many more people, however, are affected by their state and local laws on a regular basis, and even fewer are familiar with these laws.

1. Look up and read the eminent domain law of your state or community.

2. Create a bullet pointed list of the most important things for individuals to know about their rights in relation to eminent domain.

3. Design a know your rights campaign to disseminate this information to members of your community. Your campaign could take the form of a presentation, a flyer, a video, a letter to the editor of your local newspaper--use your creativity!

4. Present your campaign to your class for feedback. After discussing all options, vote on the 1-3 most effective, feasible campaigns. Implement these in your community.

Option 2.

Read this excerpt from the project page at the Pulitzer Center website:

“As President Trump pushes for a U.S.-Mexico border wall—sparking political tension between the two countries—The Texas Tribune and ProPublica show how the U.S. government is likely to seize land for new wall segments by analyzing how it acquired land for border fencing.”

1. Using evidence from “The Taking,” write a letter detailing the major abuses of eminent domain in the construction of the 2007 border fence and suggesting measures the government could take to ensure the fairer treatment of border residents should their land be seized for the construction of a wall or for any other purpose.

2. Send your letter to your Senator, to your local newspaper, and/or to education@pulitzercenter.org for the possibility of publication on our education blog.

Educator Notes: 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1

Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.7

Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Students should read “The Taking” and answer the associated questions in preparation for class. Print copies of the story should be available for students to look through in class.

Discussion and Activity:

Examples of public uses include: a hospital, an oil pipeline, a casino, a homeless shelter, a high rise condo building, a movie theater, a highway, a national park

When discussing who receives just compensation, who doesn’t, and why, it may be helpful to introduce your state’s eminent domain law to acquaint students who will be completing Extension Activity 1 with it and to illustrate the difficulty of navigating the language/content without legal representation.

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