Yale celebrated Constitution Day on Monday — after all, it was the law.
The University’s program, dubbed “Ben Franklin and Constitution Day,” satisfies a 2004 federal law requiring all U.S. schools that receive funding from the government to observe the holiday with an educational event. The festivities at Yale included readings and commentary by Yale professors and students, who discussed constitutional issues and Benjamin Franklin — whose 300th birthday was in January — in an hour-long gathering on Beinecke Plaza.
The law, passed as an amendment to a federal spending bill, has drawn criticism from University administrators in the past, though commemoration ceremonies have gone off in the past two years with minimal disruption to daily life. Last year, Yale President Richard Levin said it was a “bad precedent … for the Congress to prescribe the curriculum of the nation’s colleges.”
“Yale, like other universities, is very protective of the prerogative to set curriculum,” said Richard Jacob, University associate vice president for federal relations, in an e-mail on Monday. “This goes to the heart of universities’ role in American society — to be independent centers of teaching and scholarship. Yale has argued against such mandates whenever they are proposed.”
In addition to readings, the event featured an actor dressed as Benjamin Franklin who handed out free copies of the Constitution, as well as a drawing for free copies of history professor emeritus Edmund Morgan’s 2002 biography, appropriately titled “Benjamin Franklin.”
Speakers at the event, which was organized by the President’s Office, included history professors Joanne Freeman and Jonathan Holloway as well as Ellen Cohn, editor of Yale’s Papers of Benjamin Franklin, the largest such collection in the world. Excerpts from the Constitution were selected by law and political science professor Akhil Amar, who teaches constitutional law and authored “America’s Constitution: A Biography.”
Regardless of the controversy over the holiday’s mandate, celebrating the Constitution and its freedoms is a worthwhile endeavor, said Lauren Thompson ’05, a fellow in Levin’s office who helped plan the event.
“I think it would be wonderful if everyone did it [voluntarily], but if it’s a national holiday, it’s a national holiday,” she said. “It certainly doesn’t hurt anyone to have a holiday like this.”
The law — a few lines inserted deep within the pages of a 3,000-page federal spending bill — was written by Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who has often said that study of the Constitution deserves more attention in U.S. schools. But the provision has proved controversial nationally, largely because any school that disregards the new law risks losing federal funding.
With such significant funding at stake — Yale received about $350 million from the federal government in 2005 — the University abided by the law and held its first “Constitution Hour” last September. Yale is once again complying with the Constitution Day requirement, but still has reservations about the mandate, Jacob said.
Paul Tractenberg, founding director of the Institute on Education Law and Policy at the Rutgers School of Law in Newark, N.J., said the Constitution Day requirement is legally suspect.
“Clearly, there are arguments about its constitutionality on free speech and other grounds,” Tractenberg said. “I do think it raises issues.”
Government mandates like the Constitution Day law — in which a state or federal government requires a curricular offering at any school that takes its money — are not uncommon, Tractenberg said, although they are usually utilized by state legislatures more so than the U.S. Congress. In New Jersey, he said, there is a curricular requirement to celebrate Arbor Day as well as one requiring the teaching of the “dangers of communism,” an apparent relic of the Cold War. Some schools occasionally opt out of funding when government demands start to outweigh the funding the school receives, Tractenberg said.
The level to which institutions celebrate the holiday varies, as the law gives no specifics as to what schools must do each year. To comply with the law last fall, Vanderbilt University hosted a panel on the constitutionality of the holiday itself. Rutgers Law School held readings from the Constitution on Monday, Tractenberg said, but only in “a kind of perfunctory way.”