On Monday, Sept. 17, students, faculty and greater community members gathered in the Case Western Reserve University School of Law’s Moot Courtroom to celebrate Constitution Day, a holiday dedicated to the appreciation of the 231-year-old document that serves as the backbone of the United States government.
In 2005, the federal government enacted a law requiring all institutions who receive federal funding to hold educational programs celebrating the occasion. For over a decade, CWRU has celebrated Constitution Day by holding a discussion forum with guest speakers focusing on a topic relevant to current politics.
The first Constitution Day hosted by CWRU took place in 2005 and was entitled “What Should Be in a Constitution?” Since then, discussion topics have included healthcare reform, same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization.
“The Constitution Day Forum is a tradition and to be able to be a part of it, especially as a non-political science major, has been one of the most rewarding moments of my undergraduate career,” said fourth-year student Jacqueline Kett, a member of the nine-person committee that spearheaded the organization of this year’s event.
“As both a chemical engineering and international studies major, it’s difficult for me to get relevant legal experience,” said Kett. “Constitution Day Committee allows me to prepare properly for law school.”
The discussion forums take the form of a debate, usually with two speakers of opposing viewpoints on the subject. The event, sponsored by the CWRU Office of the President, is completely student-led. All aspects of the event including the topic, guest speakers and discussion questions are chosen by a student panel.
This year took a different turn, focusing instead on the delicate balance between privacy and public safety within the subject of encryption. The two featured speakers of the event were Professor Raymond Ku and Professor Avidan Cover, both of CWRU’s Law School.
The subject of encryption became particularly relevant after the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, when the FBI ordered that Apple Inc. create software to enter a suspect’s phone in a way that could bypass the four digit code needed to unlock the iPhone and therefore avoid destroying the information on the phone after ten failed passcode attempts. Apple’s refusal to create such a program was rooted in fear of what such a “backdoor” could mean to Apple users and launched a debate about the fine line between one’s privacy and public safety that continues today.
Cover began his opening statements by describing how his iPhone is able to predict regular patterns of behavior, like what time he leaves his house for work and gives him predictions, like map estimates of the amount of time it will take him to get from his home to work, relevant to these observations. He continued on to say that by storing both information that the users do and do not intend, iPhones “intrude on the privacy of our lives.”
Ku responded that the focus should not be on whether or not the government should be able to see one’s personal data. The focus of such a debate, he argued, should center around when, where and why the government should have access to such information, therefore leading to more questions this would pose to the Constitution, specifically the Fourth and Fifth Amendments.
Cover continued the debate by highlighting the potential danger in a cooperation between corporations and the government, arguing that such cooperation threatens constitutionality, as both organizations together could potentially eclipse the right to privacy expected by most.
Ku, disagreeing with Cover, argued that the Constitution says nothing at all about privacy, and posited that the government has legitimate reasons to investigate its citizens when it pertains to public safety, in cases like that seen in San Bernardino.
At the end of the debate, both professors revisited the thin line between privacy and public safety, stating that citizens should pay attention to the various rules and interpretations when it comes to encryption, as old precedents are constantly being changed in order to keep up with changing technology.
“It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here,” remarked one audience member.