Bill of Rights

Program Information

Program: Questioning the Constitution
Segment Number: 11 (Watch entire program)
Duration: 00:03:02
Year Produced: 2008

The notion of the Bill of Rights is the great protector of the American individual rights is a modern idea, not part of our Constitutional history.

The United States Constitution has been the foundation for the United States government and its citizens for over two hundred years. Many people believe it is the “gold standard” for fledgling democracies all over the world. It calls for the citizens to be active and for government to be accountable to those they govern. Many historians believe the Constitution has made our nation as successful and as powerful as it is; however, many of our citizens have not read or do not understand the Constitution and the foundation of our government. “Questioning the Constitution” looks at the development of the constitution, how it has been interpreted and questions whether the constitution should be reformed. This one-hour documentary was produced by WCVE PBS in partnership with the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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LANE: The notion of the Bill of Rights is the great protector of the American individual rights is a modern idea, not part of our Constitutional history. Just to [give you] this point, because I just love it, in 1798, we passed the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act, which John Adams signed and his biographer Dave [McCullough] called the worst act of his entire presidency, made it a crime to criticize the government and the President. A crime. And they prosecuted people. Where was the court with the First Amendment? They were saying, “Well, we don’t have any roll in that.” To show you how political this was, it was not a crime to criticize the Vice President. And why not? Thomas Jefferson was the Vice President. And they wanted to criticize him like crazy. They couldn’t wait to keep criticizing him. So you could criticize Jefferson and the, you know, and his, uh, Republican Democratic Party but you couldn’t criticize the Federalist Party and it was a crime. So, the Bill of Rights is a latecomer in its enforcement. It’s the 1950s.

STROSSEN: Sometimes, over the course of history of a particular period it’s two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it’s two steps backwards and one step forward. We are right now in one of the recurring periods when, uh, we are in a national security crisis. When people are understandably concerned about whether the safety of the nation is jeopardized and at every single such period we see government reacting the same way. The executive branch over-reacts, unnecessarily expands its own power, reduces the rights of individuals, including freedom of speech. And then there’s a corrective mechanism that sets in. And by the way, this is not a partisan issue, it’s really an issue among the branches of government. I mean, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a human rights hero in many respects, and yet he was responsible for the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. So I think we have to expect from history that no matter what the President’s values might be in another context, when the security of the nation seems to be in danger, we can expect the executive branch to extend its power to the maximum. And that makes it more important for the checks and balances to come into play. For Congress to exercise a vigorous oversight role. For the courts to vigorously exercise judicial review. For public groups, such as the ACLU and others to act as watchdogs. For the press to act as a watchdog. But if you look at the course of history, you have every basis for optimism that a correction will come into play.