Constitution Day Gets Controversial

What makes America great is debated every day by scholars and average Joes, politicians and protesters. Is it our rich wealth of social entitlements? Is it the opportunities presented in a free market? Is it our willingness to aid developing nations on their track to independence?

Or can it be boiled down to a 220-year-old document that expressed what our government ought not to do to guarantee its people’s freedom.

“Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is the cornerstone of American ideology originally stated in the Declaration of Independence, but what made this loaded phrase a living, breathing document was the ratification of the Bill of Rights in 1791.

Since that date our Constitution has been riding a roller coaster of debates and interpretations through party politics, wartime restrictions and court cases championed by people convinced the laws they were living under infringe on their right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

This rocky history was celebrated yesterday by Prof. Rosa Eberly‘s English 474 class, Issues in Rhetoric and Composition.

In 2005, the United States Department of Education mandated that all federally funded educational institutions must celebrate September 17 as Constitution Day. The federal observance, which commemorates the date of the Constitutional Convention’s signing of the Constitution, was designed to engage students in not only the study but the expression of their constitutional rights.

Eberly acted on this principle of freedom and allowed her students to freely choose for themselves what to do in observance of Constitution Day.

Some students chose to read banned books at the Schlow Library as an expression of their freedom to share ideas through press. Others handed out lollipops at the doors of the HUB with the cute tagline, “Don’t be a ‘dum dum’—read your Constitution.”

However, the group that caught my attention was one that was expressing their right to a peaceful assembly. A group of around 10 students posted up outside of the HUB with signs and the desire to engage in debate.

“Want to come talk politics?” asked Mike Paras, a senior in Eberly’s class.

His response from most passing by was nothing but a blank stare and an immediate retreat to fake texting.

For those not fearful of public discourse, however, there was plenty to debate in our current political climate.

A research associate in the astronomy and astrophysics department, Margaret Chester, stopped to argue just how much was protected under her Second Amendment right. Admitting to be an avid fan of the outdoors, Chester believed that “the right to bear arms” guaranteed her the right to hunt.

“If you’re not part of a group, you’ll never be able to fight for your rights,” said Chester about her decision to join the National Rifle Association. Having a collective voice assured her right to “go out with her dog and shoot things” was not infringed upon.

One student refuted Chester’s claim and said that the Second Amendment protected the formation of militias. “Hunting is not the problem,” she said before rattling off a list of high-powered weapons like Uzis and sawed-off shotguns.

Two completely different views stemmed out of the same 27 words.

This theme carried through other debates ranging from immigration to the federal reserve, from budget spending to corporal punishment. But one subject that seemed to be a hot button issue for students was the due process amendments that guaranteed citizens the right make a cop’s job a really big pain in the ass.

When relaying stories about run-ins with law enforcement the Bill of Rights became a shield from criminal activity. The Fourth Amendment made sure you have enough time to hide your weed. The Fifth Amendment guaranteed your right to attempt the “my dad’s a lawyer” trick. And the Sixth Amendment allowed you to use that lawyer dad to convince the judge into believing your side of the story.

Some students in the group explored this dilemma by asking if police have the right to bust an underage drinker at a tailgate. Some students said ‘yes’ that our rights may sometimes impede justice. Others saw due process clauses as an easy way to avoid getting booked while “getting wasted.”

Onward State editor and dude I ran into while deeply contemplating this issue, Dave Cole, added the element of the protection of the innocent into the catch-22.

“The worst thing is convicting an innocent person,” said Cole. “Laws may sometimes aid criminal activity but that’s the byproduct of a fair judicial system.”

There is no right answer. Not to the deficit, to military action, or to seeking equal rights for social minorities. There is however a market place of ideas to participate in to foster our own personal convictions.

Though I wouldn’t personally join the NRA, I would hide in a trunk if cops came to a tailgate I was at. It’s all in the interpretation of the Constitution and the position you’re at in life. This process is what molded the U.S. Constitution into the pliable document that protects us all as citizens.

If you see things differently, tell me. But don’t just keep the discussion in the 140 character limits of a tweet. Express yourself and add to the marketplace of ideas. That’s what Constitution Day really means to me—even if you personally disagree.

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