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Remember the Constitution

Zach Einterz | Tuesday, September 18, 2007

“The Constitution: It’s not just a good idea. It’s the Law.” – Michael Badnarik

Monday was Constitution Day. Constitution Day was created in 2004 when a law was passed mandating any school receiving federal funds to teach about the Constitution on or around Sept. 17, the anniversary of its ratification. If you had no idea that Constitution Day was Monday, you’re not alone. A survey released Monday by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation revealed less than 50 percent of high school students have heard of Constitution Day and only 10 percent remember how it was celebrated last year in their high school. This comes at a time when the need to educate Americans on the founding document of this country seems ever more pressing. Consider some of these statistics from the 2007 “State of the First Amendment” survey:

When asked which rights were guaranteed by the First Amendment, only 16 percent of Americans could name the freedoms of press and assembly. Only three percent could name the right to petition.

28 percent of Americans believe freedom of religion was never meant to apply to religious groups that the majority of people felt were extreme or on the fringe.

65 percent agree that the “nation’s founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation,” and 55 percent believe “The Constitution establishes a Christian nation.”

60 percent believe you should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups, but only 41 percent believe you can say offensive things about racial groups.

34 percent of Americans believe the press has too much freedom, while only 13 percent say there is not enough freedom of the press.

42 percent disagreed that musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics others might find offensive.

Perhaps the most disturbing fact came from the “Future of the First Amendment” survey of 2007. It reported that only 67 percent of high school students agree with the statement “Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.”

If these are our attitudes toward the First Amendment, the most well-known and publicized part of our Constitution, imagine what our attitudes might be for the rest of the document. How many Americans can name all, or even half, of the 10 Amendments in the Bill of Rights? How many understand the balance of powers and know which powers are delegated to each branch of government? American citizens are not expected to be experts in Constitutional law or political science majors, but a basic knowledge of the Constitution and an understanding of its purpose are necessary for the protection of our Republic.

The Constitution was written to restrain the power of the government. With the memory of an oppressive king fresh in their minds, the framers of the Constitution wrote up a document that prescribed limited powers to the federal government. If we are ignorant of the limitations placed on government, how can we defend our rights? When we lose respect for the Constitution and the rule of law, we concede authority to the government to act on its own volition.

We have seen over the past several years the abuse of our Constitution by the very people who swear to uphold it. Military commanders approve the use of torture. Politicians from the legislative and executive branches support everything from warantless wiretapping to the suspension of habeas corpus to the centralization of power at the federal level. Politicians abuse the Constitution because they can get away with it. Americans voters have become too ignorant and too complacent, and too often we don’t hold them accountable.

The Constitution turned 220 years old Monday, but its mandates remain timeless. Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures is just as important now as it was in 1787. Authoritarians will make the argument that the Constitution is anachronistic, or as President Bush infamously declared in 2005, “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face. It’s just a piece of paper.” If we don’t educate ourselves about the Constitution and demand that our elected leaders follow it, it will become just that – a meaningless piece of paper.

Zach Einterz is a junior majoring in economics and environmental sciences. He has turned to politics after giving up on an unsuccessful sports career. Contact him at zeinterz@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.