This week marks the first federally required observance of Constitution Day in all educational institutions that receive funding from any federal agency.
And while supporters say the day could provide much needed First Amendment education, opponents of the mandate say it is just another example of an intrusive federal government.
Federal legislation passed in December 2004 requires schools and federal agencies to hold educational programs on the Constitution on Sept. 17 — the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. When the day falls on a weekend, as is the case this year, schools are required to hold a program during the week before or the week after Sept. 17.
One proponent of Constitution Day is Roger Soenksen, who teaches mass communication law at James Madison University. As someone who deals with constitutional and First Amendment issues daily in the classroom, Soenksen said he believes that learning about the Constitution should be intertwined in curriculum.
Soenksen noted studies that show how uninformed many high school and college students are about their rights. He said he feels that if nothing more, Constitution Day will be a shot in the arm to shed light on an important issue. He said he is using his platform as a teacher to encourage students to attend the university’s planned events.
Soenksen cited the USA Patriot Act as another reason that now is the time for people to be learning about their rights and freedoms as citizens, mentioning Benjamin Franklin’s view that those who do not know their rights are primed to lose them. The Patriot Act, passed in 2001, enhances the authority of U.S. law enforcement for the stated purpose of investigating and preempting potential terrorist acts in the United States and around the world.
Carol Singletary, an English and journalism teacher at Clovis High School in New Mexico, is one of many faculty who do not feel comfortable with a federally mandated day for recognizing the Constitution.
“I suspect my discomfort comes from the already too intrusive behavior of the feds these days,” Singletary, who also teaches newspaper production, said in an e-mail. “Education has long been the province of the states, but that is going away.”
Singletary said she would feel differently if state or local governments were implementing this day of commemoration.
“I have never been comfortable with people telling me exactly when and what to do, but I would certainly feel it was the prerogative of my local and state education departments to make that mandate,” she said.
Singletary, who advocates teaching the Constitution in a meaningful way, worries that many schools, in order to get everyone involved, will simply do something similar to what her school has planned: showing a video of several teachers singing a song about the Constitution to the tune of “This Land is My Land.”
And she does not have high hopes about the effectiveness of the video.
“I suspect either laughter or boredom,” she said, anticipating her students’ reaction.
School systems across the country are leaving the decision of how to recognize the mandate up to individual schools and districts. According to Laura Neff-Henderson, a spokesperson for Arlington County Schools in Virginia, there is not a county-wide plan for Constitution Day. She said that each school is responsible for planning activities to comply with the mandate.
For school systems looking for help with planning activities, J-Ideas, a group at Ball State University that works to develop and encourage excellence in high school journalism, has worked to provide high schools with material to help satisfy Constitution Day requirements.
J-Ideas will webstream a prerecorded telecast, titled “Our Living History: A Celebration of the Constitution,” that was filmed in front of a Ball State media class. The program is a discussion mediated by Warren Watson, director of J-Ideas, in which a newspaper publisher, a Constitutional scholar and the chairperson of Ball State’s Department of Educational Leadership debate constitutional history and the Bill of Rights.
The telecast stresses that these are living documents that grow with the nation and remain important in individual lives, Watson said.
The video, which will begin airing tomorrow on www.jideas.org, will be available to high schools across the country. It will also be produced as a DVD for future classroom use. Also included on the DVD will be “Pardon the Constitutional Interruption,” with a format similar to ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.” It will be a fast-paced hour filmed live at Ball State in which participants will discuss the Constitution with a First Amendment focus, Watson said.
“Being good citizens is our responsibility,” he said. “The Constitution assumes people will be active and involved and the basis of that is being informed about the Constitution.”
-by Clay Gaynor
To view J-Ideas telecasts via Web stream, visit:
For tips on how teachers can teach the First Amendment, visit:
See the Student Press Law Center’s new online quiz to incorporate media and First Amendment issues into your Constitution Day activities:
A panel at Vanderbilt University in Nashville will discuss whether Constitution Day is unconstitutional as part of the school’s fulfillment of the mandate: