On Constitution Day, A Recognition of our Civil Liberties

By on September 16, 2011

Today is Constitution Day, so designated by Congress in 2004 in recognition of the Constitution’s signing by the Constitutional Convention on September 17, 1787, in Philadelphia. (Because the 17th falls on a Saturday this year, Constitution Day is being observed today, the 16th.) Of course, given FIRE’s work on behalf of student and faculty rights, every day here at our Philadelphia headquarters feels a little like Constitution Day, but it is particularly appropriate to recognize our constitutional freedoms today.

To that end, I wanted to point attention to a thoughtful post by Gene Policinski, Senior Vice President and Executive Director of the First Amendment Center. Discussing the poignancy of this year’s Constitution Day in particular, Policinski writes:

The national observance of the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was emotional, overwhelming and likely to overshadow most other observances for a long time.

But just a few days later, on 9/17, comes another opportunity to commemorate, celebrate and join with our fellow citizens in remembrance and understanding.

This time, we focus on a document that also has been the target of terrorism, foreign and domestic: the U.S. Constitution. The remarkable document went into effect in 1789 after a lengthy national debate over the advisability of concentrating power in a central government, and over the role of government in our lives.

A road map of how our national governing structure is to operate, the Constitution would not have come about as it did without its accompanying Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791 to preserve our basic rights, including the First Amendment’s core freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

[...]

In some ways, though the terrorists of 9/11 targeted buildings and people, it was the Constitution and Bill of Rights that they really aimed for. They were gunning for America’s one-of-a-kind set of guarantees against government by elitist whim or despotic strongman. They were attacking a nation where religious liberty is prized, but where no religion can be imposed.

Ironically, the fear that 9/11 engendered has, in some minds, produced a great and ironic assault on individual liberty in the name of national security. As long as the First Amendment’s protections stand firm and unchanged, the nation has the chance to debate and correct excesses, to reflect on and reject swings to the right or left in public policy.

On this Constitution Day, it’s well worth reading Policinski’s timely thoughts.