Dissent and Cake -- Happy Constitution Day!

Colleges plan a variety of ways to mark a holiday they have been ordered to celebrate.
September 16, 2005

Constitution Day -- September 17 -- has not typically been a cause for celebration (or much of anything) on college campuses, but you can expect a change this year. That is because U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, inserted into an appropriations bill last year a measure requiring colleges receiving federal funds to offer educational programs about the Constitution on its birthday (or the week before or after on years like this one when the day is on the weekend).

The regulations for the new law are extremely loose -- colleges can do just about anything to mark the day. And they are -- from rather minimalist observances such as watching C-SPAN shows to programs that will teach constitutional principles. Many campuses plan lectures, with the current transition on the U.S. Supreme Court a popular topic.

The prize for the most intellectually honest Constitution Day observance should probably go to Vanderbilt University, which is sponsoring a program in which the university's law dean will argue that forcing colleges to honor Constitution Day is unconstitutional. Ever since Senator Byrd proposed the measure, college officials have been complaining about it, saying that Congress shouldn't be adding educational requirements or telling colleges which holidays to celebrate. But almost all of those complaints have been muted -- Senator Byrd being a very influential lawmaker.

Edward Rubin, the law dean at Vanderbilt, is anything but muted on the topic. "I'm surprised that the Congress and the president would choose to honor the Constitution by violating it," Rubin said. "Nothing could be further from the meaning of the Constitution than compelling speech about a particular topic at a particular time."

Rubin will be leading a panel discussion on this topic at Vanderbilt on Wednesday. He's not worried about Byrd's reaction. "I think Senator Byrd made a mistake in proposing this law, and would not have done so had he held hearings and realized how educational institutions would react, but he genuinely cares about  higher education, and I think he will see forums like ours as an honest and respectful response," Rubin says.

At other colleges, any number of celebrations are being planned. No birthday party is complete without cake and Xavier University in Ohio will have three of them for its Constitution Day party on Saturday. One cake will feature the preamble to the Constitution and the other two will have portions of the Bill of Rights. Students will also be entertained by a video of the "Schoolhouse Rock" feature on the Constitution that many remember from our younger days. (If you exercise your freedom of expression by preferring cookies to cake, head to the Art Institute of Philadelphia, where part of the festivities will include red, white and blue cookies.)

Public readings of the Constitution will take place at Philadelphia and Seton Hall Universities and Wellesley College. At Pennsylvania State University, only the preamble will be read, but it will be read in unison by the ROTC Color Guard and others who attend. To encourage attendance, the first 100 who arrive will receive free 3" by 5" American flags.

A number of colleges have planned participatory activities to reflect constitutional principles. The Georgia Institute of Technology on Monday will transform a walkway into "Constitutional Alley," where students will be invited to write opinions about constitutional issues related to privacy, religion, affirmative action and other topics. St. John's University, in New York, is holding a series of students debates, moderated by faculty members.

At the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia, large boards will be mounted at various campus locations and students will be invited to propose additions or changes to the Constitution. Theater students will be in colonial era dress and an a cappella group will perform patriotic songs.

At El Centro College, part of the Dallas County Community College District, students will be put to the test with "Constitution Jeopardy," in which prizes will be awarded to students who really know their Constitution.

At least one college has been observing Constitution Day without being told to do so. Dickinson College has brought in a guest speaker to mark the day every year since 1995. This year's speaker is is Geoffrey R. Stone, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School whose most recent book is Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime From the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism.

Dickinson is named for John Dickinson, who signed the Constitution.


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