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BC Community Members Shares What the Constitution Means to Them at Clough Event

The meaning of the U.S. Constitution and the performance of American democracy is constantly contested, according to Jonathan Laurence.

“The Open Society Foundation did a global survey of respondents from 30 countries this summer, and they found that … people believe in [the Constitution’s] potential to deliver results, but they are less convinced by its current performance,” said Laurence, director of the Boston College Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy,

Co-sponsored by the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society, the Clough Center hosted its second annual forum, “What the Constitution Means to Us,” in celebration of Constitution and Citizenship Day on Thursday evening. Members of the BC community shared what the words of the Constitution mean to them.

Sarah Lunnie, senior dramaturg at The Public Theater and BC ’08, said the framers of the Constitution were like artists, tasked with grappling with the chaos of beginning a new project while balancing tradition with radical ideas.

“If I were to evaluate the Constitution … I’d say it’s a serious attempt to construct the conditions for self-governance in the context of white supremacist patriarchy, whose amendments reveal at least a partial recognition of its foundational prominence, but also a fear … to undertake a substantial revisioning and fulfill the province of its preamble,” Lunnie said.

Shaun Slusarski, a graduate student in the theology department, reflected on the prevalence of medical neglect in prison facilities throughout the country. He said the words of the Constitution are at times ambiguous and enable prison officials to not provide proper care to inmates.

“The lack of clarity around the meaning of the words ‘deliberate’ and ‘serious’ still gives a wide latitude to prison officials in deciding what and how much to provide,” Slusarki said. “For one thing, it is very difficult to prove that the failure to provide adequate care in a particular case is in fact deliberate.” 

Arguing that the Constitution is a living and breathing document, Slusarski encouraged the audience to reflect on its meaning in the context of the present day.

“What is considered cool and unusual has shifted since the 18th century,” Slusarski said. “We as a society therefore must reflect on what is, in fact, cruel and unusual today.”

Kay Schlozman, a political science professor, addressed the ambiguity of the Constitution through her experience teaching a course titled “Rights in Conflict.” In a quiz she administers at the beginning of each semester, she asks students to identify the phrases that were included in the U.S. Constitution, yet no one typically answers completely accurately.

“The lesson that I take home is not necessarily that sophomores in political science don’t know anything, but rather the importance of the constitution as a symbol and the extent to which it has absorbed or been viewed with the values that are built in American democracy,” Schlozman said. 

According to Scholozman, the phrases students frequently thought originated in the U.S. Constitution came from the Declaration of Independence, which she said exemplifies the significance of the Constitution as a symbol of American culture.

“What I’ve learned is the extent to which the Constitution is a fundamental part of the American political culture, even if we don’t always know what’s actually in it,” Scholozman said.

Law professor Daniel Kanstroom, founder of the BC Immigration and Asylum Clinic, said as an immigration and human rights lawyer, he struggles with questions surrounding the inclusion of non-citizens in the phrase, “We the People.”

“[The Constitution] does not offer a simple text, from which one can derive answers to complex political, legal questions,” Kanstroom said. “It is and always has been an interpretive work in progress.”

Kanstroom ended his talk by adding that while the Constitution is far from perfect, there is opportunity for it to evolve. 

“For me the Constitution is problematic, inadequate, anachronistic, frustrating, and easy and often misinterpreted, but it’s also potentially a rich and evolving source of rights for the most marginalized among us,” Kanstroom said.

September 17, 2023