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Federal law mandates Constitution lecture series

Hidden away in a 658-page congressional appropriations bill is a sentence that will affect nearly every institution of learning in the nation - Brown included.

The sentence, authored by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., requires every school receiving federal aid to spend time on or around Sept. 17 of each year to discuss the U.S. Constitution. According to the Washington Post, Byrd carries a copy of the document with him wherever he goes. The law, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005, marks the anniversary of the signing of the nation's founding document as Constitution and Citizenship Day.

To comply with the law, Brown inaugurated a new lecture series, "Constitutional Debates: A Lecture Series on the United States Constitution," Thursday afternoon in Salomon 101 with a lecture on the "Origins of Constitutionalism" by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Gordon Wood, professor of history.

The law, passed in December 2004, does not specify how an institution must educate its students, nor does it promise any penalty for non-compliant colleges. In fact, according to the University of California, Berkeley's Office of Public Affairs, a university could comply with the law simply by posting a link to the government's Constitution Day Web site, though Berkeley has a panel discussion planned.

According to Assistant Provost Brian Casey, who helped organize the new series, "Our reaction (to the new law) was that we might, on or about Sept. 17 of every year, invite Brown scholars to speak on the Constitution from the perspective of their various disciplines."

Funding for the series is coming from the provost's office's discretionary fund, Casey said.

In his introduction of Wood, Provost Robert Zimmer acknowledged the existence of the new law, saying "it was time for us to provide our compliance with this new federal statute," but he also noted that the specific idea of a lecture series was a result of interest last year in a speech by Geoffrey Stone, a professor of law at the University of Chicago Law School and an expert on the First Amendment.

"The response to Stone's visit was very positive," Zimmer said.

According to its Web site, the University received approximately $73 million in government grant funding during the 2005 fiscal year.

Brown is not the only university working to comply with the law. According to their press offices, Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities and Dartmouth College have lectures planned as well. Columbia University will open up its collection of rare manuscripts from the country's founders, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School is working on a project to educate Philadelphia high school students about the country's guiding document. Cornell University has a forum planned with professors and its interim president, and student volunteers plan to hand out Constitution-related materials.

Casey also said that Brown and other Rhode Island colleges communicated with each other on their planned Constitution Day activities.

At the beginning of his lecture, Wood noted the irony of a congressional mandate obliging colleges to discuss a document limiting that body's power, saying, "Certainly a congressional mandate is not the best way to get universities focused on the Constitution, but it may have come to that."

Wood expressed his regret that Brown is "an exception" among undergraduate colleges in providing a regular course in constitutional history.

But the federal mandate shouldn't suggest a lack of interest: Wood's lecture was so large that a last-minute venue change was required, moving everyone from Salomon 001 to the larger hall upstairs.

"I took a class with Professor Wood. He was dynamic, and the subject matter is interesting and certainly relevant, especially with a Supreme Court confirmation hearing going on," said Herald Opinions columnist Joey Borson '07.


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