Until recently on television, Bill Moyers' series "In Search of the Constitution" has best illuminated the reasons for celebrating the bicentennial. However, his array of Supreme Court justices and scholars may not have held the attention of many who do not know substantive due process from a diminished seventh chord. In trying to show we have a living Constitution, the series had scarcely any real-life stories in it.
By contrast, David Hartman's September program, "The Constitution: We Live It Every Day," on ABC-TV, focused on people for whom the Constitution has come resoundingly alive. Two segments of that hour in particular ought to be made available to schools, senior-citizen centers and diverse community organizations. Maybe Warren Burger's official Bicentennial Commission could help raise money to disseminate such vivid evidence that the Constitution has a human face.
The program began with Cat Nguyen, an honors student at a Louisiana high school across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. When she was 12, she and her family escaped from Vietnam on a boat that was seized four times by pirates. When she came here, the only English words she knew were "hello" and "thank you." Two years later, she was a straight A student.
Her response to a class project on freedom of the press was to try some. Cat and some colleagues put together a mimeographed paper which, among other things, noted that counselors were not available to all the kids who need counseling. And there were teachers, the paper said, who really didn't care about the students.
The principal -- as soon as he was aware that this student was committing what British governors here used to call seditious libel -- banned the paper, confiscating whatever copies were left. And, he emphasized, he had to review any future issues before they were published.
Cat Nguyen contacted the American Civil Liberties Union, and it provided cooperating attorneys. Rather than go to court, the principal and the school board agreed that Cat and her associates, who would soon graduate, could print another issue -- without the principal's prior review.
One of the students said she had learned something that had hardly been emphasized in class: "The Constitution applies no matter where you're at in the United States. That's the purpose of it." And a young man said: "Cat gave me courage to know that someone my age would have it in them to go ahead and fight for what they want."
Another story on the television program was the kind Frank Capra might have wanted to film. It was reported in this column a year ago and concerns Zanona Hardin, 81, and Florence Smith, 76 -- members of the Senior Friendship Center in Torrington, Wyo.,which receives public funds. They, like the other members, greatly depend on the center for companionship, recreation and transportation.
A controversy began when the director of the center decided to replace the long rectangular tables in the dining room with round tables. Both women joined other members protesting the change on the grounds that physically handicapped senior citizens would find the round tables more difficult to deal with. Hardin and Smith, whose ancestors came to Wyoming by covered wagon and boxcar, spoke their minds as a matter of course and thereby particularly annoyed the director -- and eventually the board of the center.
Letters were sent to Hardin and Smith threatening the expulsion of anyone -- certainly including them -- who disturbed the peace of the Friendship Center by "words, language or conduct." The two women, fearful of being exiled, apologized. They were warned, however, that any future "unjust criticism" could get them in trouble. They decided to fight back.
An ACLU lawyer took their case. The courtroom in Cheyenne was crowded with senior citizens, and U.S. District Judge Ewing Kerr ruled that the center had acted unconstitutionally, for freedom of speech is "the greatest freedom of all."
Says Florence Smith: "I just figure if my folks could put up with the hardship of a covered wagon, it's up to me to have the stamina to just keep right on." And Zanona Hardin notes: "Freedom of speech. Isn't that wonderful?"
The ABC-TV program made a serious omission. Lawyers were barely mentioned. Yet neither the youngster in New Orleans nor the two senior citizens in Wyoming could have paid a lawyer. Some private attorneys might have taken the cases pro bono, but such lawyers don't grow on trees. The ACLU was not mentioned on the program, but without it none of these people might have been able to vindicate his rights.
The ACLU may have stopped thinking on some issues -- abortion and AIDS, for instance -- but who would take the ACLU's place if it disappeared?