Happy Constitution Day, America! Now Go Read It.
The United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, is still cited relentlessly by politicians, pop culture, and the media alike.
Some people are absolutists who take every written right literally without exceptions, and others like to interpret it on a case by case basis. What’s frustrating is when people pick and choose the amendments that they like and heavily criticize those that they don’t.
These selective arguments are expressed more frequently now with a presidential election looming overhead. One side of the country clings to the first amendment, and the other won’t loosen its grasp on the second. Every person with a social media account ungracefully acts out the role of a Supreme Court Justice giving his or her final interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.
This can make life pretty confusing for college students who want to take a stand. The lines are not always clear on what is protected by the Constitution. Some rights are limited and it’s always up for interpretation.
Students at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) tested their free speech and right to protest at the start of the semester. This fall marked a new rule for some college campuses: at public universities in Texas, students are now permitted to carry concealed weapons on campus, including in the classroom. This legislation was passed by strong supporters of the second-amendment who seem to have little intuition for the possible repercussions of introducing firearms into an environment with thousands of students who are drinking, experimenting with drugs, dealing with depression, and coping with mental illness. This amendment might have been interpreted more freely than intended, but the gun advocates are the ones who voted.
Unlike many other Texas universities, UT Austin is notoriously liberal and opposed the legislation from the beginning. A handful of professors left the university as a result, while students found a more interesting way to protest.
After discovering last year that sex toys are banned in classrooms, but guns are not, students started the “Cocks Not Glocks” movement. They distributed 4,500 donated dildos to their peers to be carried around campus in opposition. While this would usually be considered obscene and not protected, the university decided that the students were protected under free speech in this instance in an alternative interpretation of the Constitution.
The first amendment, in this case, was debatable. I would argue that it always is. You can’t read the Constitution as it stands today as absolute. Our country has already decided that it is not a perfect, timeless document. We abolished the amendment allowing slavery, and we added one to let women vote. Unless you want to argue we shouldn’t have made those changes as a country, then you can’t argue that the document is perfect and complete as is. It has protected us in many ways throughout history. We should carefully analyze it, consider it in different contexts and circumstances, see where it translates to the present, and where it falls short. We have to leave room for humanity in our arguments.
The most recent debate on free speech is centered around the 49ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who chose to sit down during the national anthem on the NFL’s opening day in passive protest. He later commented that he chose not to stand for the song because he couldn’t support a nation that oppresses black people. Several news outlets shamed him, while others applauded his decision, and the nation was again divided on the interpretation of what is or is not protected under the Constitution.
Free speech, in my opinion, means the freedom to express yourself or not. Expecting that people uphold patriotic traditions should be just as much a violation of free speech as censorship. Arguing that sitting during the national anthem, not putting a hand over your heart during the pledge, or burning an American flag is not covered by free speech is evidence of a poor understanding of the Constitution.
Gabby Douglas was similarly criticized a few weeks prior for not putting her hand over her heart during the national anthem at the Rio Olympics. It was unintentional and misunderstood, but, before she could defend herself, the Twittersphere erupted.
I support both of these expressions of protest and free speech. It is, however, mind-boggling to me that the dildo-carrying college students received less criticism than a football player who sat down. Americans expected Kaepernick to oblige to social norms because he is on the big screen representing America’s sport. They let the college students slide because they anticipated it. They held two protesting parties to different standards and grossly misinterpreted the Constitution.
In our government, we give the decision of interpreting the Constitution to nine highly-educated individuals known as Supreme Court Justices. If you’re going to argue like they do, you should do extensive research first. Likewise, if you’re going to protest, know what you’re protesting, why you are protesting it, and if your form of expression is protected by the Constitution.
The Constitution is a document that directly affects your life and something you should examine beyond your eighth grade American history class. There’s even a holiday dedicated to the document. Friday, Sept. 16 is Constitution Day, so pull up a digital copy of that dusty old paper and read it.
My point is this: We inherited the U.S. Constitution from the founding members of our government who are all dead and cannot interpret it for us. We should be careful to interpret it within its historical context, with a modern perspective, and with an understanding that the writers couldn’t foresee the future and all of the possible contexts in which the rights they settled on would be evoked. It is not pragmatic to interpret the Constitution absolutely, so stop treating it like taxidermy roadkill.
Written by Brooklyn Dippo, Editor in Chief