The enduring fight for civil rights was centerpiece at UCF’s Constitution Day celebration in the Key West Ballroom on Tuesday.
The event is held annually every Sept. 17 to commemorate the day the U.S. Constitution was signed 232 years ago.
This year marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a spontaneous protest turned violent in which members of the LGBTQ+ community fought back police harassment at the Stonewall Inn pub in 1969 New York City.
That moment in history served as a catalyst to the modern LGBTQ+ movement. The Constitution Day committee decided to focus the conversation around that watershed event and the changing aspects of constitutional law and civil liberties.
As many UCF students ready to engage in the political process for the 2020 election, some for the first time, Barbara Smith, executive director of communications at the College of Undergraduate Studies’ Division of Teaching and Learning, and member of the Constitution Day committee, said the committee considered what would be of top interest for young voters.
“The goal of Constitution Day is not only to recognize the importance of the U.S. Constitution, but also creating a conversation among the university community about timely topics and how they pertain to the Constitution,” Smith said.
The committee, largely occupied by members of the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government, called on expert speakers and arranged to have both a representative of the UCF Student Government Association and the League of Women Voters tabling outside the ballroom to provide general information, register students to vote and push the signing of non-partisan petitions.
The event began at noon and was open to the public. The committee greeted the attendees with free pizza lunch and bottled waters.
UCF Provost Elizabeth Dooley gave the introduction speech, where she said she was happy to see over 50 people there - the largest audience yet for UCF's Constitution Day.
Associate Instructor Patricia Farless was the main guest speaker. As both a historian and a member of the gay community, she said she found it difficult to separate her presentation of historical facts from her own personal experiences.
Then said she realized that would be impossible.
“We are actors in the current historical scene,” Farless said. “History and society are intertwined. They do not exist in vacuums.”
This is directly connected to Farless’ main point: as the values of society change so does the law. That the constitution is not a static, settled law, but dynamic, and that our understanding of it should not be static either.
“That is what I mean when I refer to the ‘uneven terrain’ of constitutional law,” Farless said. “We need to understand that part of our history – we need to think of it that way – that our rights are not a given. Our rights today do not guarantee our rights tomorrow.”
She said her second most important point was the people’s power to control the constitution every time they vote. She reminded the audience that United States v. Windsor and Obergefell v. Hodges, Supreme Court cases that changed the perception of equal rights and protection of civil rights, had the advantage of just one judge voting the majority. That judge was Anthony Kennedy, now retired, who has been replaced by Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Do elections matter?’ And in the constitution that we created you better believe they do,” Farless said. “Because, as we know, the president selects and puts forward judges, then the senate decides whether to approve them or not. And one vote, my friends, is the reason same sex marriage exists.”
Teri Fine, associate director of the Lou Frey Institute, said that this year UCF commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 14th amendment, as well. A law which stands for equal protection of the law for all citizens, but she said has become fuddled over time as the courts argue over what it means to be a citizen.
“The people with power, they decide who’s mainstreamed and who’s marginalized," Fine said. "And so, the important element there is that for hundreds of years and continuing today there are laws about individuals being made by the majority, saying that there are people in the minority who are not entitled to XYZ right, but if we understand those rights as rights of citizenship then they cannot be denied them.”
Anjella Warnshuis, coordinator of administrative services at Lou Frey and vice-president of the UCF Pride Faculty and Staff Association, spoke as a representative of the gay community and informed student attendees about some of the resources on campus.
Warnshuis said these events are important for LGBTQ+ students who may need support, as struggles for the community persist today, even 50 years after Stonewall. She said these days are still "dangerous times" for minorities like trans women and called attention to intersectionality and gender identity issues, as well.
Zak Myers, the governmental affairs coordinator for SGA and a junior double major in political science and public administration, said it is important for students to understand that the Constitution “is a living and breathing document” that affects their lives every day.
“I don’t think many students understand the scope and the impact of the constitution,” Myers said. “Things like how rapidly it changed over the course of a very short time, the fact that we’re up to 27 amendments, and that a lot of states are working to rectify the Equal Rights Amendment right now – which would be a huge change for us.”
But Farless is quick to remind the audience that while the Constitution can extend freedoms, it can also trump them.
“And that is the beauty of the Constitution, but also the danger of what the Constitution can allow,” Farless said.