Illahee Notes

Christopher Phillips: PNCA Constitution Cafe


Guest blogger Dustin Freemont, MFA candidate in Collaborative Design at PNCA, was invited to share his experience with our first speaker, Christopher Phillips, in the 2012 Illahee Lecture Series

The PNCA MFA Collaborative Design program was honored to host Christopher Phillips for a Constitution Café on February 1st. Members of the program were joined by community residents, members of OccupyPDX, and Illahee board members. Phillips’ notion of a Constitution Café is to provoke discussion around the language of the constitution, something most of us probably regard as sacrosanct. In a time when our politics is so polarized, the Café was an enjoyable, non-partisan discussion. We discussed an extract from the 1st amendment:

“Congress shall make no law… abridging… the right of the people to peaceably assemble.”

Phillips guided the group through several key questions surrounding the seemingly simple wording. Why just Congress and not any other part of the government (federal or local?)? Should where they assemble be specified (on public land? What constitutes public?)? Who decides what is peaceable? Would the term non-violent be more clear? Shouldn’t Congress actively protect my right to assemble, instead of merely just not making prohibitive laws?

We constructed a couple of alternate versions: “Congress shall protect/facilitate the right of the people to peaceably assemble” and “No arm of the government should obstruct the ability of the people to peaceably assemble.” Some clarifying statements such as “on public property,” in the end, we felt were better left alone to keep rights and privilege more open to interpretation.

These questions were discussed against the backdrop of recent Occupy oustings around the country. They were done at the city-level; technically Congress did not interfere. Does this failure call for an amending of the Constitution? Phillips sees no harm in considering it, and as a political scientist I agree. Yet while I will not foist my opinion on this audience, I’ll only say that the longer I contemplated the original wording, the more convinced I was of its wisdom.

Because of the complexities of language, it may seem impossible to have a perfect constitutional amendment. However, I don’t think the complexity of language is to blame, but human cleverness