can constitutions go too far?

A Columbia 250 symposium on October 16 and 17, 2003, tackled the pressing question of how to strike the right balance between liberty and security. Produced by Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures, this online Web archive features chapterized video, speakers' slides, related resources, conference transcripts, and an executive summary.


Constitutions are generally regarded as vital and benevolent documents. The American Constitution, forged in response to the failure of the loose confederation of states, has lasted for more than 200 years with only modest changes and is widely revered as an essential protector of fundamental human rights. But constitutions raise pressing questions, made all the more relevant by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and subsequent terrorist and antiterrorist activity around the globe. At what point do constitutions make it too difficult for government agencies to secure the safety of a nation's citizens? How can the framers of governments strike the right balance between individual rights—often afforded constitutional protection—and the collective rights of the state?

This fall, to kick off the celebration of Columbia University's 250th anniversary, Columbia hosted a distinguished group of international government leaders, philosophers, and political scientists for a two-day symposium titled "Constitutions, Democracy, and the Rule of Law." Participants included Michel Rocard, who served as prime minister of France from 1988 to 1991 under Francois Mitterand, considered by many to be one of the most incisive politicians to hold European office in the last quarter-century; philosopher and mathematician Antanas Mockus, current mayor of Bogota, Colombia; and Joseph Stiglitz, Columbia's Nobel Prize-winning economist. Led by Jon Elster, Robert K. Merton Professor of Social Sciences, and Akeel Bilgrami, Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy, the symposium explored the companion issues of whether, and how, constitutions constrain governments, and what impact constitutions have in a time of heightened concerns for international, national, and individual security. The seminar was held at Miller Theater on October 16 and 17. Each day featured a presentation from prominent speakers from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by a panel discussion from 2 to 4:30 p.m. From the citizen's perspective, constitutions serve to outline the working structure of the government and protect individual rights. But from the perspective of governance, constitutions can be double-edged. "They can paralyze or they can protect," said Elster, adding that constitutions are designed to constrain governments from acting too quickly, but can in turn limit the government's effectiveness, particularly in times of crisis. In addition, there are critical issues to evaluate, such as which rights warrant constitutional protection, and which should be left to legislatures to develop.

Elster pointed to South Africa's constitution, which includes strong privacy policies, but which has hampered the government's ability to collect information about the AIDS virus, a major public-health problem. In cases such as this, Elster cites a dictum by Justice Robert Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court: "The Bill of Rights is not a suicide pact." In the case of an epidemic, for example, it may be necessary to violate search and seizure rights, or privacy rights. "In most cases, we say that rights trump laws," Elster said. "But in some cases, rights are trumped." Bilgrami, who presided over the second session, "Terror and Civil Liberties," asked participants to think about whether the emergency that the United States faces as a result of terrorism justifies suspending civil liberties for some of its citizens and residents. He anticipated general agreement that the events of September 11 and the subsequent terrorist attacks in Africa, the Middle East, and Indonesia warranted serious concern about security. But he sought deliberation about whether security can be pursued in the face of potential terrorism without a serious threat to civil liberties, about the extent to which the measures adopted recently by the United States government undermine such liberties, and finally about whether these measures will make the United States more fearsome to the enemy, or more despised.

When it comes to constitutional issues, Columbia has deep historical roots. As King's College it produced some of the leading figures in the creation of the American Constitution, including Gouverneur Morris, John Jay, and Alexander Hamilton. In addition, Columbia has educated two U.S. presidents, several Supreme Court justices, and many other nation builders, including Bhimrao Ambedkar, father of India's constitution, and Pixley Seme, a founder of the African National Congress. All of these people grappled with the fundamental issues of constitutional rule and freedoms.

The exchange between experienced politicians and academic theoreticians is at the core of the experience the symposium sought to create. "This was a place to test our intuitions against sophisticated thinking and vice versa," Bilgrami said. "It was our noble hope to have a thoughtful discussion."


The academic symposia of Columbia 250 have been made possible by a generous donation from the University Seminars at Columbia University.�Click here�to find out more about the Seminars.

Program Schedule
View the timetable for the conference.

Executive Summary
Read the highlights of the conference.

Video Archive
View video highlights of the symposium, including slides and transcripts from conference participants.

Related Resources
View additional online learning resources.
Conference Transcript
View the full text of the conference proceedings (PDF).
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