Professor: Dig into the Constitution for yourself

Sean Yoder
September 17, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK — Rosa Eberly will gladly tell people that the U.S. Constitution affects them every day of their lives.

But you don’t have to take her word for it: just talk to her students in her Foundations of Civic and Community Engagement class.

This year, like past years, students will present on different aspects of the nation’s supreme law from 2 to 4 p.m. on Constitution Day (Sept. 17), in Room 232 A and B in the HUB-Robeson Center at University Park. About 50 posters on a Constitution-related topic will be on display from students from CAS 222N and CIVCM 211N,

“The purpose of both the poster event and the prompts on the website is to generate conversation about the United States’ constitutive document — its history, its virtues, its flaws, and its manifold current exigences,” said Eberly, who is the director of the Intercollege Minor in Civic and Community Engagement.

Students from Travis Brisini’s section of the Foundations class also will present posters for Constitution Day. Brisini, assistant teaching professor of communication arts and sciences and assistant director of the CIVCM minor, coordinated this year’s Constitution Day events.

Though the poster event is part of satisfying a mandate for schools that accept federal funding, it’s also a way to get students thinking for themselves about the Constitution, both in content and in presentation. Eberly said she wants her students to inform, and not “punch people in the face” with their presentations, as she jokingly told students enrolled in the Foundations course during a Sept. 12 class.

The federal mandate is codified in 36 U.S.C. § 106. It broadly says that each educational institution that receives federal funds in any given fiscal year “shall hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on Sept. 17 of each year for the students served by the educational institution.” It became law in 2005.

There are a number of events planned at Penn State campuses on and around Constitution Day on Sept. 17 this year.

Eberly, an associate professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences and Department of English, said that she and her colleagues noted more than a decade ago that higher education institutions needed to do more in the spirit of public scholarship.

During previous Constitution Day events at University Park, organizers have usually narrowed down the topic, such as “The Space Between the First and Second Amendments” and “The Dangerous Thirteenth Amendment,” the topics from the last two years. It’s wider this year, but Eberly pointed out the daily national discussions in the news about matters referring to the Constitution.

“Rather than focusing on a particular part of the U.S. Constitution as we did the last two years, this year our theme is ‘Emoluments ... and More!’” she said. “While the U.S. Constitution is exigent any day of any year, the Constitution has been in the news more often over the past 20 months than at any time since the 2000 presidential election.”

The mention of emoluments references pending investigations and lawsuits against President Donald Trump, one of which makes direct mention of Constitutional violations: the Maryland and District of Columbia attorneys general filed a lawsuit against the president claiming his business entanglements violate the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments clauses.

The Emoluments Clause is Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution: “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”

Emolument is defined as a return arising from office or employment, usually in the form of compensation.

There also is the 25th Amendment, which lays down the ways the president can be removed from office and what happens during a subsequent vacancy. It was referenced in an anonymously published Sept. 5 op-ed piece in The New York Times, whose author claims to be a high-level White House staffer. The author claimed the president’s cabinet was “whispering” about invoking the 25th. “But no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis,” the author wrote.

These current events bring to the forefront of mind a document containing language that can be hard to understand.

“As I told my students, the Constitution’s language is closer to Shakespeare than it is to us, and it can be a very intimidating document,” Eberly said. “But getting in there and wrestling with it and focusing on a particular part that addresses something you’re already interested in is the key to unlocking the document.”

Eberly said her students will often latch on to certain articles and amendments, especially the Bill of Rights. For some it’s the Fourth Amendment, the right to be protected against unwarranted search and seizure. For others it’s the Eight Amendment, which addresses cruel and unusual punishment. The First and Second amendments are also perpetual favorites.

Christopher Beem is the managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, which “promotes scholarship and practical innovations that defend and advance democracy in the United States and abroad.” He agreed that such exercises are helpful for people to understand the document for themselves.

“Lots of people say they love the Constitution, but many do not know much about what it says and doesn’t say,” Beem said. “Penn State does a great job using Constitution Day as a teaching opportunity. The idea with the poster session, and with lots of similar events on campus and around the area, is not to argue for one point of view versus another. Rather the objective is to help people understand what the document actually says, where the debates are, and maybe where they stand themselves.”

Last Updated September 17, 2018