Constitution Day 2009 Op-Ed
In Tinker v. Des Moines, the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark freedom of expression case, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate."
On Thursday, Sept. 17, we celebrate Constitution Day, the 222nd anniversary of the signing of America's founding document of governance. As communities across the country start another school year, it is a useful time for each of us to reflect on the protections the Constitution provides and the freedoms it enables.
Schools are microcosms of our society. Just as the Constitution has proved remarkably adaptive to technological and social changes, the Supreme Court has deliberated repeatedly on how the Constitution applies to students and school administrators. The Court has crafted decisions that guide schools on such issues as the rights of student journalists, religious liberty, freedom of speech, and discrimination.
The Texas Young Lawyers Association and the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section of the State Bar of Texas have produced two helpful primers on the constitutional rights of students at school, one aimed toward high school students, the other toward high school principals. The guides, along with dozens of educational resources, are available to download at www.texasbar.com/pamphlets.
One of the highlights of any visit to Washington, D.C., is the opportunity to see the actual Constitution. Standing before its protective display case, it is heartening to realize that this handwritten document, which has been amended only 27 times, governs so well our world of cell phones and computers and constant connectivity.
Technology, of course, enhances our lives, even as it forces us to grapple with new issues. Each of us is only a click away from viewing a perfect facsimile of the Constitution. Yet each of us is also only a click away from misrepresentations from both ends of the political spectrum on what is and is not constitutional.
Why not test your knowledge of the Constitution by visiting the website of the State Bar's Law-Related Education Department, which has created a series of interactive games? Go to www.texaslre.org/onlinegames.html and try your hand at "The Bill of Rights Match Game," "The Constitution Relay Game," or, my personal favorite, "Pirates of the Preamble." The games are smart, cleverly produced, and thought-provoking.
Playing them may inspire you to reread the Constitution and think hard about what it says and means. The next time you strike up a conversation at the water cooler or the grocery store, maybe you'll share trivia about the founding documents rather than talk about last night's reality TV show or this weekend's football game.
Too often, our public discourse takes the form of people talking at each other rather than with each other. In the past year, neighbors have argued with neighbors, friends have argued with friends, and family members have argued with family members about a presidential election, a Supreme Court nomination, and health care reform. We do not have to agree on banking policy, social issues, or foreign affairs, but we can agree to debate in a civil manner, to speak considerately, and to listen attentively. After all, more unites us than divides us.
On Constitution Day, let's celebrate the document that unites all Americans and the rights and protections it affords each of us. As Justice Fortas said, we do not shed our constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate. Nor do we shed our constitutional rights before any gates we set for ourselves.
Roland K. Johnson is president of the State Bar of Texas. He is a shareholder in the Fort Worth law firm of Harris, Finley & Bogle, P.C.