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I work at a small, Southern community college with a large military presence.  Constitution Day approaches.  As you well know, we have to observe the day in order to preserve our financial aid standing.

I actually enjoy the day, or at least I used to.  Until today.

We're reading the constitution as a group - students, faculty, staff, administration, notable quotable types from the community and region.

I invited all of our students and the broader community to join us, and I've had a fairly good response rate, from all groups - I'm actually pretty pleased.  Today, though, all that went down the drain.  Join me, if you will, and mind the gap.

Here's my email:

Dear CC Students, Faculty, and Staff:

Next week marks an important anniversary for our nation, the signing of the Constitution.  On September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed by thirty-nine brave men who changed the course of history. Constitution Day is a time for us to continue their legacy and develop habits of citizenship in a new generation of Americans.

In that light, we would like to invite you to participate in the reading of the Constitution, in its entirety, on the campus of CC under the clock tower beginning at noon on September 19.  I am hoping for 100 readers to join us on Monday for an event that will take about two hours.  Readers will be provided with very brief excerpts of the Constitution, in large-print font.  I will also have the Constitution available in a number of other languages for those who are more comfortable speaking languages other than English.  Readings will be distributed first-come, first-served; I’m sure you understand the impossibility of assigning sections.

If you are willing to participate in this civic venture, please join us on Monday.  We have a number of readers who’ve committed to participating at the beginning, so it would be helpful to have some of you join us throughout the two hour span. I look forward to sharing this historic occasion with you.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to seeing each of you next week,

Pretty straightforward, right?  I didn't think there was anything offensive there.  Apparently, I was wrong.

Shouldn't the constitution be read only in the language it was written? I don't know of any classes at CC in any other language. It's just a little disrespectful don't you think? By even considering reading the constitution in any other language than in which it was written, English! This email should be revised and resent out corrected out of respect to the constitution.

My response:

Mr. --,

Dean -- forwarded your email to me as the coordinator of our Constitution Day activities.

CC is guided in our purpose by a number of core values, among which is a commitment to creating an inclusive atmosphere that is diverse in its makeup.  In that light, we have a number of people joining us on Monday who are preparing to take their citizenship tests and are your fellow students – they are enrolled in English as a Second Language classes.  They are quite excited both about becoming American citizens and learning English and have agreed to join us to read in the languages they’re most comfortable speaking.

Constitution Day is our opportunity to increase participation in and understanding of public affairs beyond the act of voting, and for the first time, we are fortunate that it’s also a chance for us to help soon-to-be citizens become agents in our republic.  As I’m sure you know, we Americans have a long national tradition of welcoming many cultures to the benefits and responsibilities of citizenship.  And of course, there is no better way to help new citizens understand and appreciate our founding document than by encouraging them to learn it in the language they primarily speak.  This is an exciting time for the college – to be able to help these Americans, and those whose citizenship isn’t quite as new as well, learn an important document in the company of their fellow students.  I’m sure you’ll agree that this is an honor we should all be proud to be a part of.

I hope you will join us Monday as well,

My best,

khowell

Well-reasoned, right?  Calm?  Lots of light, not much heat.  Non-confrontational?  I thought I did alright.  Some people won't be reasoned with.

Thanks for the response. I just don't think this is a smart thing to do. I congratulate those students who immigrated here for a better life and education. But there are protocols for reading the constitution aloud. And CC is an American school not an international institute. Please consider and respect the feelings of Americans who have laid their lives on the line in defense of the Constitution. I am a proud veteran and served three tours in Iraq, and this is insulting to me to even be considered. The Constitution is written in English and for tribute readings can only be read in English. I would consider attending if the Constitution is respected to the utmost.

I have a number of problems with this reply.  Starting from the top:

"There are protocols for reading the constitution aloud."

There are no protocols that I'm aware of for reading the Constitution aloud.  There are protocols for treatment of the flag, yes, but for reading the Constitution?  Really?  I welcome any correction there if I'm mistaken, but I've talked with the political scientists and historians in my life (several) and none have mentioned any.

Please consider and respect the feelings of Americans who have laid their lives on the line in defense of the Constitution. I am a proud veteran and served three tours in Iraq, and this is insulting to me to even be considered.

People with prior military service aren't entitled to any more "right" interpretation of the Constitution, just as I, as an historian, am not entitled to any more "right" interpretation of our founding documents - nor are political scientists.  That's one of the many problems with literacy tests for voting... that people who are illiterate are just as entitled to vote as those who can "read and comprehend the constitution to the satisfaction of a clerk."  The whole thing smacks of literacy tests to me.

The Constitution is written in English and for tribute readings can only be read in English. I would consider attending if the Constitution is respected to the utmost.

According to whom?  Is there any law that says people can't read the constitution in whatever the hell language they want?  The National Constitution Center provides the document in a multitude of languages.  I don't know much about constitutional law - beyond what we learn in US history courses, that is, but I have a hard time believing that to be the case.

I'd like to encourage anyone with legal background to give me some pointers here, with references, if you've got them.  I'm so mad, I can't see straight, and I feel pretty sure that on Monday, there will be others like him now.  Sigh.

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