Is Constitution Day unconstitutional? New law requires colleges and universities to celebrate the document

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) amended a massive spending bill last year to provide that all institutions of higher education receiving federal funds celebrate Constitution Day, he may not have envisioned a discussion about whether the requirement is itself unconstitutional.

But that will be among the topics of a Constitution Day event scheduled for Wednesday, Sept. 21, at Vanderbilt University. The federal educational mandate does not spell out how public and private colleges and universities must mark the day.

Vanderbilt has invited Byrd, who is said to carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket, to participate in the event or to send someone from his staff in his place.

“I’m surprised that the Congress and the president would choose to honor the Constitution by violating it,” said Edward Rubin, dean of Vanderbilt University Law School and the John Wade-Kent Syverud Professor of Law. The law school is a sponsor of the Sept. 21 event.

“Nothing could be further from the meaning of the Constitution than compelling speech about a particular topic at a particular time,” Rubin said. “It runs counter to one of the Constitution’s most central provisions – its strong guarantee, embodied in the First Amendment, that speech should be free from government compulsion.”

Rubin added that the mandate also violates the widely valued social policy of academic freedom.

“I can think of no better way to honor the Constitution, and to educate students of all ages about its meaning, than to sponsor a discussion on the constitutionality of this edict,” he said.

The event, which is open to the public, will be held at the law school on Sept. 21 from 4 to 5 p.m., since Constitution Day, formally set for Sept. 17 every year, falls on a Saturday. Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the day the Constitution was adopted in 1787.

Participants representing Vanderbilt Law School will include First Amendment expert Thomas R. McCoy, Tarkington Chair in Teaching Excellence and professor of law, who, along with Rubin, will speak to the issue of the constitutionality of this new requirement. Renowned constitutional scholars Rebecca L. Brown, Allen Professor of Law, and Suzanna Sherry, Cal Turner Professor of Law and Leadership, will address the continued vitality of the 218-year-old document and its significance for contemporary political debate. A colloquy and question and answer period will follow the panelists’ remarks.

Media contact: Susanne Hicks, (615) 322-NEWS

*The full text of the U.S. Constitution is available at

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