Participants in Yale’s first “Constitution Hour” delivered recitations from America’s founding document — fulfilling a government mandate the University had originally opposed.
All federally funded educational institutions are required to hold programs on the document on Constitution Day, a holiday that falls annually on Sept. 17, the day the Constitution was signed in 1787. Immediately after the provision was passed last year, Yale President Richard Levin called the mandated celebration of the Constitution a “bad precedent,” and other University officials said it could pose a challenge to academic freedom.
But in the months since, Yale has come to terms with the mandate. There were no protestors and little student attention on the event Tuesday that drew approximately 20 audience members, mostly participants in the ceremony itself.
At the ceremony, which was held in Connecticut Hall after being relocated from Cross Campus due to thunderstorm warnings, faculty, staff and students read excerpts from the Constitution following commentary by faculty members. Law professor Akhil Amar, whose recently published “biography” of the Constitution was being raffled at the event, participated in the ceremony. Organizers distributed miniature copies of the Constitution at the door.
The provision, part of a federal spending bill signed into law by President Bush last December, was written by Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd and specifies that federally funded educational institutions “shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution.”
Yale Director of Federal Relations Richard Jacob said although Yale had every intention of complying with the law, it had reservations about the precedent created by the measure.
“We share the senator’s concern of awareness, appreciation and respect for the Constitution,” Jacob said. “But we had concerns about the notion that the federal government would step in and dictate curriculum.”
However, administrators and faculty members across the board now seem to agree that the celebration of Constitution Day, in its present form, does not pose a substantial threat to academic freedom.
Being required to present certain subjects is simply a reality that comes with being a major research institution that receives hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding, Amar said.
“The government saying that we have to study the Constitution,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s that different from studying reading, writing or arithmetic.”
The mandate is fairly flexible and allows institutions great latitude in choosing how they want to approach the subject, Yale spokeswoman Gila Reinstein said.
“[We would have objections] if we were obliged to alter the curriculum or require faculty members within their classes to teach the constitution,” Reinstein said. “But this will be an enhancement to our program, and an enrichment activity.”
But some students said they remain opposed to the government’s treatment of Constitution Day. Nick Seaver ’07, chair of the American Civil Liberties Union at Yale, said he thinks the University should teach people about the Constitution since few are deeply schooled in the document, but that the instruction should neither take place on a single day nor be prescribed by the government.
“Clearly if the government dictates what universities teach, then that’s a problem,” Seaver said. “Maybe [the government] should take a break on Constitution Day and learn why that’s a problem.”
Stanford Law School professor Larry Kramer said that even though the way in which the government is requiring schools to celebrate the Constitution may not be ideal, calling it an attack on academic freedom would be an exaggeration.
“It’s a silly law,” Kramer wrote in an e-mail. “Not because the Constitution isn’t worth celebrating, but because this is a silly way to go about it. But to call it an infringement of academic freedom is to confuse a minorly inconvenient mandate with issues of much greater moment … To blow this up into the first stages of tyranny is overdoing it quite a bit.”
Roger Vann, a representative of the Connecticut American Civil Liberties Union, said his group has larger concerns about academic freedoms and civil rights.
“Let’s be realistic, we of all organizations are sensitive to civil liberties,” he said. “[But] there’s a broader debate going on about academic freedom on many campuses across country … that is a whole lot more serious than what has been mandated by the federal government for Constitution Day.”
In addition to Amar, American history professor Glenda Gilmore and history professor emeritus David Davis spoke at the ceremony. The event will be broadcast on Yale’s Office of Public Affairs Web site, Yale TV, Public Access Television as well as podcast on iPods.