Dear Members of the Campus Community,
Every year on September 17, the university observes Constitution Day, which commemorates the signing of the United States Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Constitution Day is a federal observance based on a law passed in 2004 that requires all publicly funded education institutions and federal agencies to provide educational programming on the history of the Constitution.
Our observance of this day must both recognize the Constitution’s vital importance as the framework of our government and laws, as well as its fraught history. The rights enshrined in the ten amendments that compose our nation’s Bill of Rights—the freedom to practice religion, to speak, to peacefully assemble, to liberty itself—have not been afforded equally to everyone. Centuries passed before these rights were extended to indigenous people, people of color, women, LGBTQIA, and many others, and this struggle continues to the current day. And yet while the rights promised in the Constitution were denied to many, the Constitution also serves as an aspirational goal for many who struggle to forge “a more perfect union.” As a nation, we continue the push forward towards that “more perfect union”-- through social activism, education, and judicial and legislative action to ensure that these rights are enjoyed equally by all.
Over the last two years, we as a university, and as a nation, have engaged in complex, contentious, and emotional debates about issues such as vaccine disinformation, the right to protest, and the teaching of critical race theory in schools. A key element in all of these conversations is freedom of speech, a right enshrined in the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” However, how these rights are interpreted is an ongoing, evolving conversation that plays out in our daily lives and presents myriad questions. When does one’s right to speak infringe on the rights of another? When do words become dangerous misinformation, and is it constitutional to try to stem the flow of disinformation? Does the First Amendment protect a teacher’s academic freedom to teach various views of history, including critical race theory?
This year, we invite you to focus your attention on the First Amendment, and what “freedom of speech” really means, whether it be on social media, in a classroom, or at a protest. On Monday, September 20, at 5:00 p.m., we encourage you to attend a faculty panel in the Rotunda:
The 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory, and the Constitution:
A Battle Over Teaching American History in Our Schools
Featuring Drs. Renee Simms and Terry Beck
Moderated by Seth Weinberger
We have also compiled several resources for you to explore and think about this topic:
- Learn more about the First Amendment via the National Constitution Center. You can also access the Interactive Constitution or download the Interactive Constitution app on your phone and carry the Constitution with you.
- Check out The 1619 Project for yourself: The 1619 Project
- Take this quiz to check your knowledge about the Constitution and First Amendment.
- Listen to a podcast about Freedom of Speech or the Constitution:
- The Daily - A Cheerleader, a Snapchat Post, and the Supreme Court - New York Times. Inside the unusual sequence of events behind one of the most important student free speech cases for 50 years.
- Unprecedented - WAMU 88.5. Unprecedented tells the stories of ordinary people who, as they pursued justice all the way to the Supreme Court, defined the limits of our First Amendment rights. In each episode, you will meet the accidental guardians of one of our most cherished freedoms: speech.
- Civics 101 - New Hampshire Public Radio. Why does the U.S. have an Electoral College? How do congressional investigations work? What does the minority whip actually do? Civics 101 is the podcast refresher course on the basics of how our democracy works.
- Constitutional - The Washington Post. With the writing of the Constitution in 1787, the framers set out a young nation’s highest ideals. And ever since, we’ve been fighting over it — what is in it and what was left out. At the heart of these arguments is the story of America. This series explores the Constitution and the people who framed and reframed it — revolutionaries, abolitionists, suffragists, teetotalers, protesters, justices, presidents – in the ongoing struggle to form a more perfect union across a vast and diverse land.
- We the People - National Constitution Center. A weekly show of constitutional debate hosted by National Constitution Center President and CEO Jeffrey Rosen where listeners can hear the best arguments on all sides of the constitutional issues at the center of American life.
And of course, make sure you are registered to vote, and to do so every year, in local elections as well as nationally. You can find information on how to register to vote in Washington state here. Additional voter registration information will be available at the end of Monday’s panel or you are invited to email firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about, or for help with, registering to vote.
Joanna Carey Cleveland, Vice President and University Counsel and Secretary to the Board of Trustees
Skylar Bihl, Associate Director for Civic Engagement & Leadership
Jessica Dedrick, Paralegal and Assistant Secretary to the Board of Trustees
Seth Weinberger, Professor Department of Politics & Government