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‘We, the people’

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The fourth annual reading of the U.S. Constitution takes place today at 12:00 p.m. outside the main reading room on the third floor of Suzzallo Library.

Words that spilled from the inky quills of the founding fathers will gain a new voice today when 100 UW students, faculty and staff swell Suzzallo Library’s third floor to read the U.S. Constitution.

Entirely non-political in nature, the fourth-annual event is designed to promote citizenship and appreciation for the nation’s definitive document. Readers are encouraged to wear daily attire, and theatrics are not expected. Each participant will be assigned several sentences upon arrival, and the reading is slated to run a little over an hour.

“You don’t have time to get nervous,” said U.S. documents librarian Cass Hartnett. “It’s such a brief reading.”

Hartnett was inspired to lend the words of the Constitution to voices at the UW after visiting the Constitution Museum in Philadelphia and hearing about public readings sponsored by the National Constitution Center.

The first event was such a success that most who participated raved about repeating it as soon as the final signatory was uttered. Forty participants contributed that year, and the event has since evolved.

Last year, a deaf student signed her passage while an interpreter spoke the words into the microphone, and a 9-year-old girl proudly read the 20th Amendment granting women’s suffrage.

“We’ve had good representation from the military: We’ve had at least four or five people in uniform in the past,” Hartnett added. “They’re sworn to defend the Constitution with their lives, so it has different resonance for them.”

As a public institution, the UW is federally mandated to display the document on Constitution Day, which was Sept. 17. Since school was not in session, a legible printout was posted in Suzzallo’s Government Publications lobby.

“I think that it’s important to know and understand the contents of our foundational document of our federal government,” said Deen Freelon, a Ph.D. student in the department of communication. “In addition to knowing the content, it’s important to know the history of it.”

Though the language in the Constitution is somewhat archaic — Hartnett likened it to deciphering a repair manual — she feels it’s balanced by familiar phrases.

Even so, the seven articles and 27 amendments that structure the United States remain a mystery to many citizens. Freelon believes a lack of education assumes a portion of the guilt.

“A lot of people can’t name the first 10 amendments,” Freelon said. “When I was in high school, we had civics classes, but a lot of students don’t have them.”

Hartnett emphasized the importance of understanding the rights outlined in the aged document. As an example, she mentioned that most people realize that freedom of speech is contained within the First Amendment, but they often blank on the other liberties it espouses: the freedoms of religion, press, assembly and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

“I think it’s something we have the privilege of taking for granted,” Hartnett said. “When people hit a point where they think their constitutional rights are being violated, they’re very much driven to go back and read it.”

Though the words themselves haven’t changed over the past two centuries, the meaning behind them is reinterpreted every day — by the Congress, by the courts and now by the students.

“I really do think people get inspired by it,” Hartnett said. “There’s a certain completeness to hearing the whole thing. You hear something different every time.”

Reach Lifestyles Editor Rachel Solomon at news@dailyuw.com.

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