Constitution Day discussion centers on civil rights in the Trump era

ACLU director David Cole visits campus

Victoria Walker, Staff Writer

The date Sept. 17 may not seem to hold immediate significance for students at the University. However, this day was selected to recognize something so central to American life that it has lasted nearly unchanged since 1787. Sept. 17 marks the annual celebration of Constitution Day, when students and faculty around the country come together to recognize and celebrate the laws and traditions integral to forming the United States that we know today.

In the interest of serving its diverse academic community, the University honors this day each year by bringing an impactful speaker whose experiences afford them unique perspectives on the Constitution and the ways in which it interacts with modern day society. This year, that speaker was David Cole, the National Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Cole’s talk, entitled “We’ll See You in Court: Protecting Civil Liberties in the Trump Era,” took place on Sept. 14th at 7 p.m. in the LC Forum. The event drew in a diverse audience of about 200 people who came to hear Cole, an esteemed attorney, author, and Georgetown professor of law and public policy, share his experiences and knowledge on civil liberties.

“I wanted to go to the lecture because David Cole is a very respected scholar and I was interested in his thoughts of civil liberties under this administration,” Taylor Bernstein ’19 said. “This is such an important time to be actively engaged in protecting our rights and I was excited to hear his take.”

Cole did not disappoint in this regard, beginning his talk by bringing up concerns about the protection of civil liberties under the Trump administration. He discussed the immediate response of the ACLU to the election and the possibility that the president would act on many of his legally questionable campaign promises. Subsequent actions of concern by the administration have included threats against the press, a proposed ban on transgender service in the military, a ban on travel from certain Muslim-majority countries, and vows to overturn Roe vs. Wade, among others.

“‘We’ll see you in court.’ That’s been our tagline since [Election] Day. If you go on the ACLU website, that’s what you’ll see,” Cole said.

However, Cole made it clear that the ACLU has not changed any of its key practices in 2017. The organization’s mission of defending constitutional liberties remains unchanged and was just as important during the Obama era as it is under the Trump one. So if the work of the ACLU has not changed, and the Constitution has not changed — save for a number of significant and high-profile amendments passed over the years — then why are civil liberties in “Trump Era” a topic of such intense academic and legal conversation?

The answer, according to Cole, is that the public response to government actions has changed. He cited the Women’s March that took place the day after the 2017 Inauguration, during which thousands of individuals took to the streets in support of women’s rights, but also in support of basic civil liberties that directly affect members of the community, as a key moment where this public upheaval became visible.

“Ever since, there has been activism from citizens around the country unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime here. It may be similar in scope to the anti-war activism during the Vietnam War,” Cole said.

This activism has had the effect of both bringing the ACLU’s work to light and helping the organization hone in on important issues to tackle. Since Cole took his position, nine days before Trump took his, ACLU membership has quadrupled from 400,000 to 1.6 million. High-profile celebrities including Tina Fey and Usher have engaged in live Facebook events to raise money for the organization, and “Vogue” magazine even featured a spread of women of the ACLU. These actions represent an ongoing effort to build the momentum pushing citizen engagement in the legal process and in the protection of rights we typically consider inherent to the legal system.

Most people know that the U.S. government works on a system of federalism and checks and balances. According to Cole, civil society is meant to check the system when it fails to check itself. He says that this system “protects us from tyranny,” and that it is important for institutions independent of the government to actively engage in the political process. This includes the press, academia, religious communities, and non-profit groups, to name a few. Cole clearly stated that the work done outside of the courts is just as important, if not more important, than the work done within them.

“The Supreme Court’s declaration that the right exists is the period at the end of the sentence,” Cole said. “But the words and actions leading to that decision come from civil society.”

As an example of this, he cited the recent Supreme Court vote in favor of marriage equality, which felt like a common sense result to many Americans, although it was still a hotly contested issue. Twenty years earlier, however, the ruling would likely have seemed outrageous, if it ever made it as far as the Court.

“The judges didn’t change. What changed? The world changed,” Cole said.

“David Cole’s general message seemed to be that joining and participating in civil rights organizations is the necessary first step to creating legal change, and the courts will follow,” Caitlin Friel ’19 said. “Maybe his talk inspired some people in the audience to become more politically active. I think that’s the general effect events like this have on the [University] community.”

“His assessment that social change has to occur before the Supreme Court will change. His examples of how Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges were all decided after lots of grassroots organizing and campaigning really resonated with me. There are a lot of big Constitutional issues in the courts right now, but it’s so important to remember that real change must begin with the people,” Bernstein said.

Cole sent this message home effectively with a closing quote from a 1944 naturalization ceremony speech entitled “The Spirit of Liberty”: “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women. When it dies there, no court, no constitution, no law can save it. As long as it lies there, it needs no court, no constitution, no law.”

Overall, students agreed that the University achieved its goal of offering a unique perspective on the Constitution in modern-day society by bringing in David Cole.

“With all that has been happening in the world, especially in the United States, that bring to question the legitimacy of law and political figures, hearing from the legal director of the ACLU, David Cole, was an opportunity I did not want to miss out on. I think that this event and others like it help the whole [University] community tackle our responsibility of being more informed and involved global citizens,” Rebcca Mercado-Rios ’20 said.

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