Today is Constitution Day. In a lot of ways, it is a day to look backwards. To remember our Founding Fathers, and marvel at this document they created.
To celebrate past judicial opinions in which our Supreme Court interpreted this document to uphold and protect fundamental civil rights and civil liberties such as free speech, the free exercise of religion, and equal treatment.
To honor attorneys, activists and every day individuals who were willing to stand up and speak out to ensure that this document continued to have real meaning. Personally, I often use this day to recall the motivation that originally brought me to the ACLU and continues to animate my work to this day.
This reflection is important. But I think it is equally important to use this day to look forward. Our Constitution is a living document. It is one of it greatest strengths. As a result, its continued vitality and importance, its continued ability to protect the civil rights and civil liberties that we hold so dear, critically relies on the next generation of constitutional defenders. It is for them that we must not only remember, but also inspire, mentor and teach.
I was powerfully reminded of this lesson earlier this week, when I had the opportunity to participate on a panel at Eastern Michigan University that focused on immigration rights. It was a Tuesday night, it was early in the semester, and I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical that students would want to spend an hour during one of the last summer-weather evenings of the season with several activists and an attorney. I have never been so happy to be so wrong. Over forty students filled the seats, peppering us with questions, sharing personal anecdotes, and all the while, furiously scribbling in their notebooks. The event went over two hours, at which point the moderators had to force the event to close.
These students were inspiring and invigorating. Indeed, I was surprised to find that I left that meeting with more energy, not less. And I wanted to share that same excitement, that same hope, with more of our supporters. In this way, these students created the impetus for a new series on our ACLU blog. In honor of Constitution Day, over the course of the next few weeks we are going to highlight the voices of our next line of constitutional defenders. These students are going to share with us their personal stories regarding the importance of the constitution in their lives and the work they either have already done or hope to do, to protect the rights enshrined in this document. They come from different schools and they touch on different subject areas. But I am sure that they all will inspire you in the same way that the EMU students have already touched me.
Consider it our Constitution Day gift to you.
By Jessie Rossman, ACLU of Michigan staff attorney
Will Leaf, Junior, University of Michigan
In 2007, administrators decided to install surveillance cameras in my high school. My friends and I tried to convince the superintendent, principal, and school board to stop the camera plan. We thought that videotaping students was predatory and degrading. Administrators did not deserve the power to record and analyze images of us without our permission. Surveillance cameras would have made our lives at school six-hour performances, to be watched and criticized by an audience that controlled us. Cameras made it easier to mold our behavior to the administrators’ wants. They strengthened the power of the viewers at the expense of the monitored.
One of the first things our group did was contact the ACLU. Members from the ACLU of Michigan helped us find adults who opposed the surveillance plan. They set up meetings between our group and school administrators.
The intentions of the administrators were unclear. No one took responsibility for creating the camera plan. School board members ignored data that showed thefts mainly occurred in locker rooms that could not have cameras. Administrators’ arguments depended on fear and poor logic. But the ACLU members kept supporting us. They spoke to us clearly and showed us respect. They did not back down when administrators tried to intimidate us and ban our anti-surveillance club. Instead they showed the superintendent the law that protects the right of students to form a political club even if it is controversial.
That is what the ACLU does. Its lawyers and activists try to make the oppressed stronger than the oppressors by appealing to law, reason, and dignity. We failed at keeping surveillance cameras out of our high school, but by working with the ACLU we learned that there are reasonable, articulate people who are dedicated to protecting decent people from unjust authorities. The Bill of Rights is a set of laws. It is lawyers and activists like the ones in the ACLU who use those laws to give people power over their own lives.