When people think of the Fourth of July, they normally think about cookouts, fireworks and parades—not an intimate discussion about the Constitution and its impact on the outcome of Supreme Court cases. There’s something distinctive about holding a discussion full of political tension these days, but with its annual Constitution Discussion, the Houston Great Books Council, a local nonprofit that curates multiple book discussions throughout the city, plans to do just that.
The annual tradition started about a decade ago, with a group originally gathering at Barnes & Noble with the intent of understanding the foundational documents that shaped the United States. Today, the discussion focuses primarily on Supreme Court cases and how they relate to the Constitution.
“The point is not necessarily to talk about current events, it’s to help us understand the Constitution and our system that we live under,” says Helen Cohen, Houston Great Books' event coordinator. “In this sort of very bookish way, it’s the Houston Great Book Council’s way of celebrating the Fourth of July.”
As of now, the two Supreme Court cases that will be up for discussion are Matel v. Tam—where justices ruled in favor of an Asian American band called the Slants stating that the group has the right to have their name trademarked despite its usual hateful connotation—and North Carolina v. Packingham—where the court struck down a North Carolina law that prohibits sex offenders from social media sites. “Put these two together and we got some very interesting stuff, particularly the impact of cyber law [and] unconstitutional law,” says Peter Linzer, the UH law professor who will moderate the discussion.
Linzer says he hopes the discussion attracts not only older guests, but younger ones as well. “It’s everybody’s Constitution, it’s not limited to lawyers and professors,” Linzer says. “Most of the people that come to the meetings are not lawyers, they’re interested in this stuff and I think it’s really critical stuff. The Constitution is our civic religion, our secular religion in a sense, that runs the country.”
Still, they don't want the whole thing to devolve into a shouting match; Great Books asks guests to check their party allegiance at the door and dig into the details. “What we’re interested in is learning what does the Constitution say and how does the court interpret an aspect of the Constitution to a particular problem,” Cohen says.
That doesn't mean that President Trump won't, as he always does, seep into the conversation, and there are certainly relevant constitutional concerns. “Right now we’re in pretty good shape, but we’ll see,” Linzer says. “Donald Trump has authoritarian instincts. He spent his whole career as being a rich man who had a lot of yes-[men] around him and who had to fight with people. Now it’s different, but he still has those instincts.” Cohen adds, “I suspect some of these issues about the current president will come up, like the conflict of interests and whether or not the president can actually obstruct justice.”
“We believe that closely reading the Constitution makes us more engaged as citizens,” says Wendy Wilkinson, president of the Houston Great Books Council. “Our event helps people make sense of this venerable but ambiguous document.”
The Houston Great Books Constitution discussion will be held on Tuesday, July 4. 1-3p.m at Barnes & Noble. 7626 Westheimer at Westheimer Crossing. More info at houstongreatbooks.net