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Congressman, A&M faculty talk student liberties

Published: Monday, September 17, 2012

Updated: Monday, September 17, 2012 01:09

The American backlash against British tyranny that won the colonists’ independence from the crown was fresh in the minds of the men who signed the Constitution 225 years ago.

The Constitution’s purpose was to limit federal power and define citizens’ rights.

“The Constitution is the framework that gives us our personal liberties,” said Congressman Bill Flores, representative for the 17th District of Texas and Class of 1976. “The way the Constitution is structured, it says that the rights of people come from God and the only rights available to government, based on our Constitution, are those granted to it by the people.”

The Constitution’s structure makes American government unique.

“Most other governments assume that they have all power and they grant individuals their rights and their liberties,” Flores said. “It’s very important that Texans pay attention to the Constitution so they can make sure the federal government does not encroach on their personal liberties or states’ rights.”

Congress named Sept. 17 as the nationally recognized day to commemorate the Constitution in 1952.

Texas A&M has been involved in Constitution Day and Constitution Week since 2005, when Congress passed legislation requiring federally funded educational institutions to have an educational program about the Constitution on Sept. 17 of each year.

“Constitution Week gives us a chance to focus on the importance of the United States Constitution,” said Nancy Sawtelle, director of public relations for the office of the provost.

Much more than a historical document, the Constitutions continues to influence and impact all levels of American society, including students in universities.

“The courts look at colleges and universities, particularly public colleges and universities, as ‘peculiarly the marketplace of ideas,’” said Dr. Dave Parrott, executive associate vice president for student affairs. “That means that students have broad protections in terms of their ability to talk about issues, discuss issues and protest issues.”

Dr. Parrott said the Constitutional freedoms most significant to students are contained in the first, fourth and 14th Amendments. The First Amendment protects the freedom of speech, religion, petition, press and peaceable assembly. The Fourth protects against unreasonable searches and seizures and the 14th deals with due process and equal protection.

“The Supreme Court has stated that the First Amendment right to free speech in particular gives us the right to be provocative,” Parrott said. “And the way we respond to that is we debate ideas, we examine ideas and students use that freedom of speech as a way of publicly stating their beliefs and having their beliefs tested in the marketplace of ideas.”

Many students exercise their Constitutional rights daily on campus. For some, these liberties often overlap.

“Without freedom of speech, freedom of religion is pointless because then you can’t freely express ideas,” said Luis Fayad, a junior history major and the president of
the Agnostic and Atheist Student Group. “In order to have freedom of religion, one must have freedom from religion “

Sarah Armstrong, senior economics and political science major and chair of the Wiley Lecture series. reflected Fayad’s perspective on the relationship between freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

“I believe that free expression of religion and of speech are upheld through our campus and are often entwined,” Armstrong said. “While some parties on campus may be more vocal than others, I do not personally know any individual who is afraid to speak freely of their beliefs.”

As a member of the United States House of Representatives, Flores contends that knowledge about the Constitution is necessary to the success of the country.

“I see people in leadership positions that don’t know how the Constitution works,” Flores said. “As a result, it’s important that citizens know what’s in it so they can hold their elected officials accountable.”

In honor of Constitution Week, various events and activities are planned throughout the week. Some of these events include exhibits in Sterling C. Evans Library, a special bell toll at 3 p.m. Monday at Albritton Bell Tower and a special half-time performance by the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band at Saturday’s game against South Carolina State University.

“Activities for Constitution Day are coordinated by the Office of the Provost and planned and implemented by partner organizations,” Sawtelle said. “These partner organizations include the MSC Wiley Lecture Series Committee, the Texas A&M University Libraries, KAMU-TV, the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band and the La Villita Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.”

A highlight of this year’s commemorative activities, featuring Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett, is a forum from the Wiley Lecture series titled “And Healthcare for All: the Affordable Care Act and the Constitution.” The forum will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 19 in MSC Room WW-2500.

“I’m continually pleased and amazed by how well-informed many of our students are and I applaud them for that,” Parrott said. “We must continue to educate so that all students understand their Constitutional rights.”


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