Hallie Ford School of Graduate Studies

Collaborations: MFA CD Blog

Christopher Phillips Visits the Studio

Text by Dustin Freemont MFA ’13
Christopher Phillips talking to CD students

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 are 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?

Image from Washington Post

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.

Phillips’ book. Image from BookSmith

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