EDITORIAL: Celebrate the Importance of American Freedom

By Trey Apffel

The Constitution is a crucial thread in the fabric of our country’s history. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, the Constitution changed world history “for the perpetual benefit of mankind. In 1787, no country in the world had ever allowed its citizens to select their own form of government, much less to select a democratic government.”

Although the Constitution was written long ago, the founding document still plays a significant role in our daily lives as it guarantees the precious liberties and fundamental rights for all U.S. citizens and puts “governance in the hands of the people.”

 In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1776, which established Celebrate Freedom Week. Texas public schools are encouraged to spend the week focusing on the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in their historical contexts. Local school districts honor Celebrate Freedom Week during the week of Sept. 17, Constitution Day, to commemorate the signing of the historic document in 1787.

Along with our profound freedom comes the responsibility of increased civic education and citizenry. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt expressed the urgency of educating our prospective leaders in justice and civic involvement: “Our children should learn the general framework of their government and then they should know where they come in contact with the government, where it touches their daily lives and where their influence is exerted on the government. It must not be a distant thing, someone else’s business, but they must see how every cog in the wheel of a democracy is important and bears its share of responsibility for the smooth running of the entire machine.”

Civic education is important to society because civic virtue fosters engaged citizens who understand our democracy and the liberties the rule of law protects. Ensuring that our children receive a solid foundation in civics is essential to producing the next generation of responsible citizens in our communities.

In the spirit of Celebrate Freedom Week, the State Bar of Texas offers resources designed to help educate the public about the law. The State Bar’s Law Related Education (LRE) Department has helped train over 6,000 educators on civic education programs and curriculum by using technology that will captivate and prepare students for responsible citizenship.

Through the department, teachers and students in elementary, middle, and high school are able to experience the interactive, Web-based programs I was the First. Vote for Me! and Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! in preparing for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.

I was the First. Vote for Me! engages students through animated historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Students and teachers can access this interactive program in English and Spanish at texasbar.com/iwasthefirst.

Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! focuses on landmark court decisions Texas students must know to prepare for assessments in the U.S. government and history. Students and teachers can search case summaries, watch short films, and find other helpful resources at texasbar.com/civics.

Lesson plans focused on Constitution Day, interactive games, and civic education resources can be found at texaslre.org.

As we celebrate the Constitution, let us not only enjoy the rights and freedoms that we have as American citizens, but let us be accountable in educating our youth on the importance of our founding documents to ensure that democracy lives on. The values that are crucial for our system of government can only prevail if sustained by future generations.

Trey Apffel is president of the State Bar of Texas and the founder and owner of Apffel Law Firm in Galveston. He may be reached via email at statebarpresident@texasbar.com


Constitution Day Op-Ed, Sept. 2012 - by State Bar President Buck Files

We hear a lot of talk these days about the U.S. Constitution and how important it is to protecting our liberties. But surveys continue to show a disturbing trend of many Americans not understanding the Constitution and its relevance to our lives today. After all, with all the technology we have now, why should we care about a document that was written 225 years ago on parchment and with a feather quill pen?

For starters, just imagine life without the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The Bill of Rights guarantees some of our most precious liberties, including freedom of religion, speech, and press, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and private property rights. The Constitution created the framework for a strong but limited national government and established the fundamental rights of all U.S. citizens.

Our Constitution is the foundation of the legal authority for our nation and federal government, and it also established the system of checks and balances with three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial.  This separation of powers was crucial to the framers of the Constitution – and still is today – to prevent an oppressive government similar to what the British enacted on colonial America.

Although written long ago, the Constitution is as relevant to our lives today as ever. For example, the Constitution is the governing document that lets us post messages on Facebook, Twitter, and watch videos on YouTube. It also allows us to have differing opinions, enjoy the freedom to express them on blogs or elsewhere and even demonstrate peacefully.

To emphasize the importance of Americans understanding the Constitution, Congress has designated Sept. 17 as Constitution Day to commemorate the signing of the document in 1787. The legislation requires educational institutions that receive federal funding to implement programs to teach students about the Constitution.

While it’s appropriate to learn about and celebrate the Constitution on this day, we also should take this time to renew our focus on civics education in our schools and society. Today’s young people soon will be voting, sitting on juries and running for political office, and they must have the civics knowledge to make informed decisions and be engaged citizens. Research has shown that individuals who receive a solid civics education are more likely to be involved in their communities through activities such as volunteering and voting.

In today’s economy, the need for math, reading, writing and science knowledge is obvious, but civics education is an essential part of a comprehensive education. It is also essential to develop informed, effective and responsible citizens. Our future depends on individuals who understand their history and government, have a sense of what it means to be an American, and know their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.

“The better educated our citizens are, the better equipped they will be to preserve the system of government we have,” said retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a longtime civics education advocate.  “And we have to start with the education of our nation’s young people. Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we have some work to do.”

Justice O’Connor is right that we have some work to do.

We are seeing increasing evidence that civics education is not a priority in America, and state and federal funding of programs designed to teach students about our heritage has been cut. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that less than one-third of U.S. fourth, eighth, and 12th grade students are proficient in civics.

Educating the public about the rule of law is part of the State Bar of Texas’ mission. For more than 26 years, the State Bar’s Law-Related Education program has been training educators on civics education programs and curriculum. As funding for civics education continues to decline, the Bar’s programs are more important than ever. Lesson plans focused on Constitution Day can be found on www.texaslre.org.

In the past year alone, LRE has trained more than 6,800 teachers and had an impact on more than 450,000 Texas students.  Another recent addition to Law-Related Education’s resources is, “Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! Civics Resources for Texas Students and Teachers.”  The web-based resource assists students and teachers in studying the landmark court cases that students need to know for the TEKS test. The site, texasbar.com/civics, includes videos, educational games, case summaries, lesson plans and numerous links to curriculum materials and other resources. And, this is just the beginning.  The State Bar continues to enhance the program and “Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay!” will continue to be a part of public school curriculum for the next 12 years.

On this Constitution Day, let’s all re-dedicate ourselves to learning more about our heritage and encourage our children to do the same. An engaged citizenry is essential to preserving our rights and freedom, and sustaining our system of government.

Buck Files, a criminal defense lawyer from Tyler, is president of the State Bar of Texas.