Constitution Day: Q&A with Donica Thomas Varner
Oberlin College will observe Constitution Day with a conversation between Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine and Oberlin’s Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary Donica Thomas Varner. The evening will open with a brief keynote address from DeWine, followed by an on-stage conversation with Varner. The event will conclude with a Q&A in which students and audience members are encouraged to ask questions of both Justice DeWine and Varner. The event will be held at 5 p.m., Monday, September 17, in Nancy Schrom Dye Lecture Hall and is free and open to all.
We talked with Donica Thomas Varner about the importance of the day, the discussion’s focus, and who should attend.
Q: Why is it important to celebrate Constitution Day at Oberlin?
A: It’s important for us, particularly in an academic community of inquirers, scholars, and thought-leaders, to think about how the document that informs our democracy impacts us in our daily life. I believe that the Constitution is a living document that should reflect our times, our norms, and what matters to us as everyday citizens. As curious and thoughtful people, we should be engaged in what the Constitution means. I hope that by celebrating Constitution Day this year, in particular, that we start engaging with our democracy and not just see the Constitution as a document that’s on the shelf, or something that people bring out to use as a sword or shield for whatever concern they’re advocating for, but as something that inspires us to be involved in our democracy.
Q: This year’s Constitution Day theme is “Pressures on the First Amendment in Higher Education.” Without giving everything away, what kinds of pressures are present?
A: I’m very interested in hearing Justice DeWine’s perspective. We were law school classmates, and together we were introduced to the Constitution and First Amendment. Our legal paths have diverged, and I’d like to hear his thoughts about how the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech and assembly and associational rights intersects with people’s rights to be free of an unlawful harassment or discrimination. The college campus provides an interesting backdrop for what is a cultural issue. So the concepts such as trigger warnings, safe spaces, ideas being dangerous, or people needing to be protected from dangerous ideas and the intolerance of some people to being exposed to ideas that are deemed dangerous or offensive—what does that mean for an academy of scholars and thinkers and artists? How do we merge those two? Because unlawful discrimination harassment is real. Our statues in federal, state, and local laws are necessary to protect from discrimination and harassment. At the same time, our democracy is built on these ideals, and people have the right to think and express offensive, disturbing thoughts, and ideas. How do we resolve what could be seen as some natural tensions in those areas?
Q: What’s the format of Constitution Day?
A: Justice DeWine will first give a short lecture on the theme, and I’m going to have some conversation with him and ask him some questions and then we will open it up to the audience. So our goal is to have students moderating and facilitating the whole event. I’m excited to hear what our community has to say about the tensions between civil liberties and civil rights.
Q: Is this event just for politics majors or students who are prelaw? If you’re a studio art major or a vocal major, why might you attend?
A: As an artist or a performer, a lot of work is about expression of self and identity and touches on the First Amendment right to freedom of expression. How does an artist share a talent or thoughts on the world? It’s through expression—whether it’s song, or dance, or music. Our ability to be authentically ourselves and to share those gifts should matter to an artist, particularly when there were periods of time when those expressions were banned. At one time, there were books that were banned from libraries, and certain posters or imagery were seen as pornographic. Who gets to decide that? There are First Amendment issues that impact artists’ ability to express themselves. They are things that I would hope thinking artists would want to engage in.
Q: What does Justice DeWine bring to the table in particular?
A: Pat DeWine is a very thoughtful, conservative thinker. His view on the Constitution and the law is one that we should understand and that we should be able to engage with thoughtfully. I think that there are various assumptions about the law and how it works that are rooted in divergent views depending on whether you have a conservative or a liberal point of view. I’m hoping that Pat DeWine will bring the best thinking that reflects conservative points of view so that we can understand them and engage with them in a thoughtful way.
Something I’m hoping we'll be able to demonstrate is that thoughtful, smart people at opposite ends of the political spectrum can have dialogue, be friendly, and like each other. I think we saw that a little bit with the passing and celebration of the life of Senator John McCain. It’s reflected in the people who spoke and honored him in his service and the people he chose to be pallbearers—it shows that it’s important that thoughtful people of good character keep the lines of communication open for rigorous debate, and that we don’t allow ourselves to become caricatures. That’s one of the goals of my inviting Pat to this conversation. And I’m so glad that he, without hesitation, accepted the invitation.
Q: Is there anything else we should know about Constitution Day?
A: Oberlin is in a very exciting time as we are thinking about who we are, our core mission, our core values, how we want to present to the world, and what we want the world to think of us. I think we want people from all walks of life, who may have different points of view and who are interested in the most excellent residential liberal arts education possible in this country, to feel comfortable coming here and having a voice and being engaged in our community. This event, which I hope is the beginning of a speaker series about how we engage across divides, will allow us to demonstrate who we really are—that we are a thoughtful community of scholars and artists and that we don’t shy away from the difficult conversations. And that we can have these conversations and go into them with a willingness to be persuaded, or open to the possibility of changing our minds, or interested in learning, rather than simply looking for confirmation about our strongly held views. That's my goal for this session—to give us a platform to reflect on who we truly are as a community.