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A Constitution for everyone

MOST Americans, it is fair to say, never invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination in a criminal case. They aren't worried about even single, let alone double, jeopardy. And the last thing on their minds is concern that soldiers will show up on their front step and demand lodging (see the Third Amendment). But the US Constitution, with the Bill of Rights, is a document of relevance to every American citizen - often more for what it implies than for what it says.

An average person reading through the Constitution is like one unschooled in music attending an oft-performed opera for the first time. For all the (long) stretches of musical terra incognita, the singers keep breaking out into melodies one realizes one has heard, somewhere or other, all one's life.

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``Due process,'' ``advise and consent,'' ``full faith and credit,'' and other such familiar phrases are the leitmotifs of the American system.

These basic concepts, along with equal opportunity, equal treatment under the law, the presumption of innocence, freedom of speech and religion, and others, add up to ``the American way,'' a distinctive approach even to nongovernmental situations, in communities, schools, religious organizations, workplaces, and families.

A secular community organization, for instance, may opt to hold a ``holiday fair'' rather than a ``Christmas fair'' because its members understand that a less sectarian approach is more appropriate in a religiously pluralistic society.

An office supervisor in a large corporation who must discuss unsatisfactory job performance with an employee does so according to certain prescribed procedures - ``due process'' - so that there are proper records and no opportunity for the employee to mistake the seriousness of the situation.

The young editor of even a high school magazine may frame the discussion with the principal over a controversial editorial in terms of First Amendment rights to free speech.

And a family may strive to include even its youngest members in its decisionmaking.

Interestingly, children's rights are part of the new territory into which the debate over civil liberties is expanding. The teen-ager who wails about ``cruel and unusual punishment'' when told he can't have the family car until he cleans up his room may be jesting. But questions as to whether school officials need a warrant to search lockers or handbags for drugs, or whether student council election campaigns enjoy the same free-speech protections as campaigns by adult politicians, have been seriously considered by federal courts in recent years.

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The American people do have strongly held views on the importance of constitutional rights - even if their understanding of what the document actually says is often murky or just plain wrong. They feel a certain security in having these rights, even if they never invoke them.

Except for those with a run for political office on their minds (see, for instance, Article I, Sections 2 and 3), the parts of the Constitution taken as most relevant to individuals are the first 10 amendments, the Bill of Rights. Of these, most basic are the implicit rights to privacy, to be let alone by the government to live one's life as one sees fit.

These rights are more fully realized by some classes - and, to be frank, races - than others. The work of continuing to extend these freedoms to all will be arduous. But the Constitution does articulate a splendid vision of justice and fairness. There is no excuse for not striving for it.

Fourth in a series

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