Constitution Day stirs debate over interpreting founders' intentions
Complying with a new federal law, the University celebrated Constitution Day on Tuesday with a panel discussion on challenges facing contemporary interpreters of the nation's highest law.
Provost Christopher Eisgruber '83 moderated and contributed to a panel discussion entitled "An Old Constitution in a Changing World," at which professors Robert George, Christopher Chyba, Stephen Macedo GS '87 and Kim Scheppele also spoke.
The law, sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) and passed in December 2004, requires all educational institutions that receive federal funding to celebrate the Constitution on the anniversary of its founding, Sept. 17. While some oppose it as an unconstitutional infringement on academic freedom, others view it as a potential remedy for Americans' increasing ignorance of political and historical matters.
"This panel occurs today by virtue of a Congressional mandate," Eisgruber said. "It doesn't seem to be onerous in some way that impinges upon the rights of free speech or exceeds the limits of Congressional power. Having said that, I don't think this is the ideal way for Congress to be exercising that power."
George offered another perspective on the law.
"Perhaps this mandate wasn't the way to do it, but the goal is the right goal," George said. "We should all be working on improving civic education here." He added, "I think we should take it in the spirit that it was given."
The celebration was scheduled for after Sept. 17 because the anniversary of the Constitution's signing fell on a Saturday this year. Also in recognition of Constitution Day, Jack Nowlin GS '99, a legal scholar from the University of Mississippi, will present a lecture on the Constitution and the Supreme Court on Thursday.
Tuesday's panelists honored the Constitution's flexibility, but also addressed its possible limitations. Eisgruber spoke of the conflict between religious and secularist views, while Chyba identified the exponential expansion of biotechnology and the threat of nuclear weapons as problems that the document's framers could not have foreseen.
"Are experiments protected by the First Amendment?" he asked, referring to the publication of scientific information that may aid terrorists or other "unscrupulous small groups" in creating widespread security threats. "The situation may look very different when the first human-made biological catastrophe occurs."
Scheppele compared the Constitution, "the oldest surviving constitution in the world," to more recently developed documents in European countries, which are usually much longer. The framers who wrote the American constitution planned for a much smaller government, a simpler supreme court and fewer explicit rights, she said, but newer documents plan for many more officials, courts and agencies.
She jokingly added that foreign officials view the U.S. Constitution the way car designers view the Ford Model T.
"It revolutionized the world," she said. "But if you're going to buy a car now, you wouldn't buy that one."
Mecedo and George squared off on the best form of interpretation. Mecedo criticized an article George recently published in The New York Times regarding abortion and the right to privacy, and also noted that there was no consensus on originalism — a doctrine that George advocates — when the document was written.
Originalism "is not prescribed by the text of the Constitution," he said. "It's as controversial and on the same ground as every competing constitutional theory."
George defended both his article and the doctrine of originalism.
"Courts and interpreters ought not to go beyond the text, structure, logic and original understanding the framers gave us," he said, emphasizing the line between interpreting the Constitution and acting as legislators, while acknowledging room for the inference of rights that are not explicitly stated.
Tomorrow's lecture on how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution will be held in Computer Science Building room 104 at 4:30 p.m.
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