In 2004, Congress voted to require all schools that receive federal funding and all federal agencies offer some type of “educational program” on the Constitution (although it does not define what those lessons should be — and there is no enforcement mechanism).
For Constitution Day 2019, Trump and the First Amendment are the focus in many classrooms and lecture halls — including a debate on whether the president should be impeached.
Academics are giving lectures on Trump, including one titled, “The Oligarch’s Road: Presidential Power and the Separation of Powers in the Trump Era,” being delivered at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law by Georgetown University law Professor Victoria Nourse.
Nourse said she chose the topic so students can understand Trump’s exercise of power as president “is not normal.”
“The president is attempting to ignore all constitutional checks against his behavior, from the Supreme Court’s established law, from within his own administration … and from Congress,” she said in an email. “If a president can successfully surmount all of these structural checks, then he can simply set up his own set of cronies to rule. Hence, the ‘Oligarch’s Road.’"
At Princeton University, conservative writer George F. Will is speaking on the topic. The title of his address: “Is Constitution Day Unconstitutional?” It is an issue that has been debated by constitutional experts for years. A Sept. 17, 2011, op-ed in the New York Times by Kent Greenfield, a Boston College law professor, says:
Ironically, Constitution Day is probably unconstitutional. One liberty the Constitution protects is the right of individuals and institutions not to applaud it. The laudable message that Congress wanted to send — our Constitution should be celebrated — is muddled by its method of mandatory commemoration. The mandate violates the academic freedom of the targeted institutions.
Trump made his comments on July 23 while addressing teenagers and young adults at the Turning Point USA Teen Student Action Summit in Washington. He was criticizing the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election led by Robert S. Mueller III, who was special counsel. “Then, I have an Article II, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president," he said. "But I don’t even talk about that.”
Students who study the Constitution learn that Article II, Section 1 does not, in fact, give the president unlimited power. It grants the president “executive power” but also says Congress has oversight responsibilities, including over the office of the presidency, and details how a president can be removed.
At Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Constitution Day activities will include a debate between Professor Randall Auxier and Murphysboro Mayor Will Stephens on this topic: “Impeach Trump.”
Other lecture topics around the country include:
— “Impeachment: What Does It Mean?” at Misericordia University in Pennsylvania and at SUNY Orange in New York, by historian and constitutional scholar Brian Carso, who said his lecture is “primarily historical,” but he hopes “history can help us see more clearly through the fog of our fractured politics and can remind us of the solemn responsibilities of self-government.”
— “Thucydides’ Trump: Cleon and the Place of Populism in a Constitutional Order” at Michigan State University, by Bernard J. Dobski, associate professor of political science at Assumption College. Cleon was an Athenian politician from the 5th century B.C. who came to political prominence amid the political vacuum created by the death of the famous Pericles. Dobski said this is why he decided to give this speech Tuesday: “We get a unique opportunity to reflect on the role that an appeal to the passions — its virtues and its vices — can play in a constitutional order that is also based on popular consent by thinking about President Trump in light of the career of the Cleon, his doppelganger from 5th Century BC Athens.”
When Congress established its Constitution Day mandate, some critics argued it was unnecessary: Students, they said, should be learning about the Constitution and its meaning in American democracy throughout the year. Still, K-12 teachers use Constitution Day for special activities — debates and plays — for a focused look at the country’s founding document.
They get help from resources available online, including from the National Archives, which provides resources here. A workshop that is included shows how educators believe it is imperative to have students find the relevance of the Constitution in their lives. The workshop introduction says:
What does the light bulb have to do with the U.S. Constitution? Or the board game “Monopoly”? How about the letter you wrote to the President when you were in elementary school? The answer to all three questions is: Plenty! – if you know your Constitution.
The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia launched Tuesday the Interactive Constitution: Classroom Edition, a major initiative to give teachers nonpartisan constitutional resources to educate their students. The Classroom Edition adds education materials to the Interactive Constitution already on the center’s website and includes a platform that allows classrooms from across the country to connect and discuss the Constitution. It is moderated by judges and master teachers.
The center is the only nonprofit institution established by Congress to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a nonpartisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” It saw new interest among Americans in learning about the Constitution after the election of Trump, as he challenges constitutional norms in unprecedented ways.
The center’s Constitution Day theme this year is the First Amendment, which is what students in the government classes of Nick Hegge of Logan View Public School in Hooper, Neb., are discussing over the center’s new platform with students in Illinois and Pennsylvania. Students in the AP Government classes of Tim Rodman at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., are also using the center’s new platform Tuesday, talking with classes in South Carolina and Ohio.
“This is another tool to teach the Constitution and the First Amendment that allows students to get really excited about the possibility of having a conversation with someone from somewhere else in the country,” Hegge said. “That gets them a little more engaged in this knowledge than they might have been without it.”
Students who study the Constitution, he said, learn “just how much the Constitution has to do in our daily lives.”
“They know it’s our governing document, but when they look into the freedom of speech issue, they start to realize how much there is there. The more they dig, the more engaged and informed they become,” he said.
Rodman said students just starting to learn about the First Amendment probably “look at it as a bunch of freedoms lumped together.” But, he said, “as we peel back the onion, they see there is a lot more to it.”
Correction: An earlier version said Misericordia University is in Philadelphia. It is in Dallas, Pennsylvania.