September 18, 2023

Recognizing Constitution Day

In recognition of Constitution Day – which commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787 – I invite you all to reflect on the importance of understanding and engaging with the constitutional debates that have shaped the development of the United States.

From the beginning of the American Republic, the meaning of the Constitution has been shaped by broader political debates and disagreements. As the country’s politics has evolved so has the prevailing understanding of what the Constitution mandates or restricts.

Constitutional doctrines that used to accommodate racial segregation and the exclusion of women from public life were later replaced by doctrines that prohibited these practices.

The Constitution used to protect the liberty of individuals to be free from government efforts to create a legally required “minimum wage” but did not protect individuals who wanted to marry a person of a different race or of their same sex. Today the prevailing understanding of the Constitution takes the opposite approach.

The Constitution was once understood to permit the government to criminally prosecute individuals who expressed ideas considered to be dangerous – usually involving progressive ideas about regulating the economy, opposing war efforts, or demanding civil rights.  Now we often take for granted that the government cannot punish the mere expression of ideas that the government does not like. (Our upcoming “Year of Free Speech” will create many opportunities to learn more about historical and contemporary debates over the meaning of free speech.)

I emphasize the relationship between the Constitution and broader political forces because we have seen very dramatic changes in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution over the last few years.

  • For almost 50 years the Supreme Court said that the Constitution protects a woman’s right to choose abortion; now that right has been overturned.
  • The Supreme Court had allowed colleges and universities to take race into account when making admissions decisions to protect a campus’ compelling interest in creating a diverse learning environment; now this is no longer allowed.
  • The Supreme Court used to place strong limits on the ability of government to use taxpayer dollars to support religious education; now, in many cases, the Court has said that government is required to subsidize religious education.
  • Since the early 1960s the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on the ability of public school districts to promote school or teacher led prayer activity, but now the Court allows teachers under some circumstances to organize prayer activities with their students.
  • The Supreme Court used to interpret the Second Amendment in a way that focused on the protection of “well-regulated militias”, but it now prohibits most gun regulations unless similar regulations existed at the time of the founding of the Constitution.
  • The Supreme Court used to allow the government to prohibit businesses from discriminating against certain customers. Now the justices say that some business owners may disregard anti-discrimination laws and discriminate against (for example) same-sex couples at least in some circumstances (for example, if the business owner is engaged in expressive activity and would object to conveying a message that was inconsistent with their personal views).

These are just a few of the ways that the U.S. Constitution continues to have a significant impact on you and our communities. And these changes occur, not because of the technical expertise of lawyers and judges, but because of larger political forces debating the fundamental values that should anchor our political practices.

Regardless of your interests, majors, or backgrounds, you have a vital role to play in shaping the meaning of the Constitution in the years to come, as part of your ordinary obligations to be an informed citizen (or interested non-citizen) who cares about the future of this country.

I encourage everyone to take the time to learn more about the constitutional debates that are impacting people’s lives today and to decide for yourself how you might best participate in these debates in a way that reflects your values and your highest hopes for the future of the country.

Fiat Lux.

Chancellor Howard Gillman