Constitution Day with real life lessons

A teacher offers a list of lesson ideas for the federally mandated day of observance, Sept. 17.

Teachers cherish summers off. But Sept. 17 is gaining on us. Sept. 17? That's the day in 1787 that the US Constitution was unveiled. Because I teach at an institution that receives federal funding, my college – and all public K-12 schools and colleges – must celebrate it this year as Constitution Day.

The requirement, a long-cherished hope of Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, was slipped into a spending bill in 2004. Never before has the federal government mandated teaching a particular topic on a particular day. The law makes no demands as to content or format, but many educators, especially in higher education, find it duplicative, patronizing, maybe even unconstitutional. But I can't resist a teachable moment. So to quote President Bush, "Bring it on."

For the occasion, the National Archives offers, among other resources, videos of Supreme Court justices, a taped discussion about technology's effects on deliberative democracy, and a game about delegates' feelings in 1787. We must do better. I propose that educators – and citizens – use a more relevant resource come September: our present constitutional crisis.

This administration and Congress have severely tested the Constitution on executive authority, checks and balances, separation of powers, individual rights – and it's all in play as never before. How real, how important, how suitable, the following lesson ideas are. In the best free-speech tradition, I submit to a candid world:

1. Upholding the law. In more than 750 cases since becoming president, Mr. Bush has signed laws passed by Congress and then issued "signing statements," reserving for himself the right not to enforce parts of those laws.

2. Watching our phone calls, library records, and bank accounts. A string of disclosures indicate that this administration will sacrifice Fourth Amendment guarantees in the search for terrorists. Or is it pornographers they're looking for? Or drug dealers?

3. Tracking dissenters. Domestic spying is back, with peace, environmental, and racial justice advocates targeted despite the First Amendment.

4. Raiding Congress. An unheard-of FBI raid on Rep. William Jefferson's office, as part of a corruption probe, threatens protections granted in the Speech and Debate clause and the independence of the legislative branch.

5. Sidestepping the courts. Though the Supreme Court ruled in June that special antiterrorism tribunals are illegal, the president and Congress are trying to reestablish them.

6. Attacking journalists. Journalists exist to report the truth; now administration officials are trying to force journalists to cooperate with grand juries and labeling tough reporting traitorous.

7. Torturing prisoners. The Constitution prohibits holding prisoners without charges and subjecting them to torture or cruelty. The US is doing all this in Iraq.

8. Traveling while Muslim. Muslims complain of airport searches, harrassment, and illegal detention, which signal a failure of the Fourteenth Amendment.

9. Inserting stealth giveaways – such as a pandemic pharmaceutical liability-shield – into bills at midnight. Congressional leaders are running roughshod over opposition as never before.

10. Abandoning enforcement. Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts are suing the US Environmental Protection Agency to force it to implement the Clean Air Act by regulating carbon dioxide emissions, which are linked to global warming.

11. Requiring Constitution Day. Generally (thanks to Amendment 10), curriculum is left to states and local school boards, which could sue to keep it that way.

So many choices for some real lessons. Fortunately, all of September is Civics Awareness Month. Teachers, get busy! So much depends on citizens who know their Constitution well enough to make it real.

Leah Halper writes about the First Amendment and teaches history at Gavilan College in Gilroy, Calif.

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