WU recognizes Constitution Day with First Amendment debate

Many Americans view July 4, 1776, as the United States’ day of independence and celebrate it as the birthday of our nation. However, it was not until Sept. 17, 1787, that the U.S. Constitution was signed, marking it as the birthday of our government. The United States now honors Sept. 17 as Citizenship Day, or Constitution Day, to commemorate the privileges and responsibilities that come with being an American citizen.

The American Constitution is significant because it “portrays the ideas on which America was founded – commitments to the rule of law, limited government and the ideals of liberty, equality and justice,” according to the National Constitution Center.

To celebrate the birthday of our government and the ideas that our nation is founded upon, a law was created in 2004 and enacted in 2005 to make “Constitution Day” a federal holiday.

In May 2005, a notice of implementation was published by Nina Shokraii Rees, U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement. Her statement mandated that, pursuant to legislation passed by Congress, all educational institutions receiving Federal funding of any kind are required to hold some type of educational program pertaining to the signing of the American Constitution.

Wendy Olson, director of Whitworth University’s financial aid, is in charge of saving the documentation of the event that takes place on Sept. 17.

“I have never had to prove that we have done something,” Olson said. “But I have the information in case an auditor or federal program reviewer requests proof that we comply with this requirement.”

Olson said that while the government does not provide funds for the event’s programs, it is important to make sure that Whitworth has proof of its documentation.

“If we failed to provide a program, we would probably get a warning,” Olson said. “Technically, they could bar Whitworth from receiving millions of federal financial aid dollars for its students.”

Gordon Jackson, a professor of communication studies for 29 years, said that the communications and political science departments generally alternate hosting the program events.

This year, Whitworth celebrated Constitution Day by featuring a panel of three communications professors in a large group discussion in Weyerhaeuser Hall. Jim McPherson, Mike Ingram and newcomer Erica Salkin discussed the ideas and issues surrounding contemporary politics. The discussion was titled “First Amendment Gone Wild: What We Dislike but Tolerate.”

While this year there was a panel discussion, Whitworth has honored Constitution Day in various ways during the past 12 years, Jackson said.

“In the past, we have had many guest speakers come talk about various aspects of the Constitution,” Jackson said. “[This year] we wanted Erica on the panel because of her expertise in the field and her special training in free expression.”

The communications department welcomed assistant professor Salkin earlier this year, and was eager to get her involved in the programs. Her areas of expertise include communication law, educational speech issues and the student press.

“I’m a constitutional scholar,” Salkin said. “I love this stuff. It’s a great opportunity to explore in depth a topic you might not always get a chance to discuss in the classroom.”

Salkin, Ingram and McPherson wrestled with the idea of boundaries — how far should free speech go? Should false ideas be screened out? Or should discussions be had to see if the truth outweighs the un-truths?

“The Constitution is an extraordinary document,” Salkin said. “It was created for a country of people [that the delegates] would never see. They wrote it for the ages. It’s worthy of our discussion, and should be applied to our lives today.” Senior Sarah O’Bernier said that the event left her with a strong feeling of appreciation for the First Amendment.

“Having grown up in the United States, sometimes I forget the benefits and rights that I have because they seem natural,” O’Bernier said. “By examining the First Amendment and what our country would look like without it, I am greatly appreciative to have such a policy in our country’s foundational document.”

O’Bernier said she enjoyed listening to the three speakers about how the First Amendment has been used throughout America’s history to bolster human rights and yet still leaves room for many differing opinions to shine through.

“I thought that they presented a great point as to how to look at the First Amendment,” O’Bernier said. “I appreciate that Whitworth wants its students to be informed and to celebrate one of the documents that makes this country great.”

Jennifer Ingram Staff Writer

Contact Jennifer Ingram at jingram13@my.whitworth.edu