The Constitution Goes to College

Five Constitutional Ideas That Have Shaped the American University

239 pages

April, 2011

ISBN: 9780814741030



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Rodney A. Smolla is the president of Furman University and former dean of the law schools at Washington & Lee and the University of Richmond. He is the author of numerous books, including Deliberate Intent: A Lawyer Tells the True Story of Murder by the Book; Free Speech in an Open Society; and Jerry Falwell v. Larry Flynt: The First Amendment on Trial.

All books by Rodney A. Smolla

American college campuses, where ideas are freely exchanged, contested, and above all uncensored, are historical hotbeds of political and social turmoil. In the past decade alone, the media has carefully tracked the controversy surrounding the speech of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at Columbia, the massacres at Virginia Tech, the dismissal of Harvard’s President Lawrence Summers, and the lacrosse team rape case at Duke, among others. No matter what the event, the conflicts that arise on our campuses can be viewed in terms of constitutional principles, which either control or influence outcomes of these events. In turn, constitutional principles are frequently shaped and forged by campus culture, creating a symbiotic relationship in which constitutional values influence the nature of universities, which themselves influence the nature of our constitutional values.

In The Constitution Goes to College, Rodney A. Smolla—a former dean and current university president who is an expert on the First Amendment—deftly uses the American university as a lens through which to view the Constitution in action. Drawing on landmark cases and conflicts played out on college campuses, Smolla demonstrates how five key constitutional ideas—the living Constitution, the division between public and private spheres, the distinction between rights and privileges, ordered liberty, and equality—are not only fiercely contested on college campuses, but also dominate the shape and identity of American university life.

Ultimately, Smolla compellingly demonstrates that the American college community, like the Constitution, is orderly and hierarchical yet intellectually free and open, a microcosm where these constitutional dichotomies play out with heightened intensity.


  • "The Constitution Goes to College is a valuable, evenhanded guide to understanding the constitutional cat's cradle in which American colleges and universities operate."

    —Luther Spoehr, History News Network

  • “This is a virtual user's manual for anyone who is interested in the intersection of two great American institutions, the law and the academy. Smolla displays an assured and deep learning, and yet his writing is always accessible and jargon free even when he ventures into territories where jargon has been the rule.”

    —Stanley Fish, author of Save the World on Your Own Time

  • “Smolla displays a special grasp of issues our college students face that are affected by the Constitution of the United States. He has given deep and clear thought to the relationship between the two and shares his unique knowledge in a practical way. I highly recommend The Constitution Goes to College to students, parents, faculty, lawyers and other thoughtful Americans who respect academic freedom and the foundation of our democracy.”

    —Richard W. Riley, Former U. S. Secretary of Education