December 5, 2016
By GAYLA CAWLEY
NAHANT — The Bill of Rights turns 225 years old on Dec. 15, and the Nahant Public Library decided to kick off its celebration a little early.
The library celebrated the anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights on Sunday, with a discussion from two scholars on the document’s history and law ramifications, funded by a MassHumanities grant for an undisclosed amount.
Professors Abby Chandler from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Dina Francesca Haynes from New England School of Law led a short lecture in front of a small group of fewer than 10 residents about how the Bill of Rights, drafted soon after the Constitution, continues to be challenged, interpreted and relied upon as the foundation of U.S. law.
Library director Sharon Hawkes said the discussion was one of a handful of similar lectures and townwide book reads that marked the anniversary. She said acknowledging the birthday made sense, adding that the country went through a contentious presidential election with two candidates with very strong opinions, including some that go back to the fundamental rights of citizens.
“It happens to be an anniversary, but it’s also a very timely document today,” Hawkes said.
In addition to the discussion, the library will host a National Archives kiosk of information on the Bill of Rights, in honor of the anniversary beginning in mid-December. Residents can view it any time during the month.
Chandler said ratifying the Bill of Rights and Constitution was a long battle. On either side at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, were federalists, who believed in a strong federal government, and anti-federalists, who believed in strong states’ rights, and were concerned that a strong federal government would be repeating the former colonies’ experience with the British.
Anti-federalists, Chandler said, had a goal of reiterating the Articles of Confederation, the pre-Constitution document that was governing the young country at the time, which treated each state as a sovereign entity.
The Great Compromise of 1787, Chandler said, was an agreement reached where the House of Representatives represents the American people, the Senate represents the states, the judiciary is appointed and the president is elected via popular vote and the electoral college.
The federalists were happy with this compromise because it created a strong federal government, so at the convention, James Madison, proposed a series of changes to the constitution, the Bill of Rights, to protect the rights of individuals, Chandler said.
After years, the Bill of Rights, which required a two-thirds affirmative state vote, was ratified on Dec. 15, 1791, three years after the Constitution was made the law of the land.
Haynes said the Bill of Rights is meaningless until the Supreme Court tells the country how they’re interpreting it at a certain period in time.
In one such case, Texas v. Johnson (1989), the Supreme Court protected a person’s right to burn the American flag, finding that it is protected speech under the First Amendment, Haynes said. Recently President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that nobody should be able to burn the American flag, and if they do, there should be consequences such as losing citizenship or jail time.
Haynes also highlighted the freedom of the press under the First Amendment. She said the press has an obligation to inform citizens about what’s happening according to the Supreme Court and that people who choose to go into public service “are expected to suck it up,” when it comes to what’s written about them.
Haynes also discussed the difficult interpretation of the Second Amendment, regarding the right to bear arms. She said the amendment has four separate clauses and in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), the court protected an individual’s right to bear a firearm for traditional lawful purposes.
“Right now Heller is precedent,” she said. “It is the law of the land.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley.