Constitutional Concepts: Crossfire Discussion
These conversations among the students are called Crossfire Discussions or Crossfires because they stimulate debate. One of the learning objectives of this exercise is to give students more experience with civil discourse on controversial topics. The students do independent research on their topic in preparation for their Constitutional Crossfire Discussion. Students are organized into Crossfire Discussion groups according to their interest in the following topics:
- The Importance of a Written Constitution;
- Separation of Powers;
- Federalism; and
- Individual Rights.
Rules of Civility
During this exercise, Crossfire Discussion group members are to exercise civility toward each other. Students must wait to be recognized by the student moderator before speaking. No one else is to speak to the group or to other individuals when another student has the floor. Participants are expected to 1) listen to the positions taken by others; 2) ask clarifying questions of others; and 3) build on, agree, or disagree with the previous speakers' comments. Students are not to make disparaging remarks about others. Although heated debate is to be expected (and, to an extent, encouraged), the conversation should not devolve into sarcastic or disrespectful remarks, inappropriate facial expressions, or personal comments of any kind. Positions should be supported by evidence, not emotion.
Guidelines for Making a Legal Argument
Students are to base their arguments on their legal research. They should provide a legally sound reason for their arguments and not simply assert their personal feelings. To make a legally sound argument, students should connect their statements to appropriate Constitutional provisions, court cases, and/or laws. Participants may bolster their position by comparing and contrasting the facts of two or more cases. If no specific legal authority can be cited, then students are encouraged to put forth their own opinions, but they should base their position on logic and provide other relevant supporting materials. In short, arguments should be grounded in logic, not emotion.
Constitution Day: Crossfire Discussion Questions
The Importance of a Written Constitution
- Is the U.S. Constitution a living document that adapts to the times or does it mean today exactly what it meant when it was written? Explain and give examples.
- If the Constitution needs to be changed, how should that be done – through court decisions, or by amendments?
- The U.S. Constitution is the oldest national Constitution still in use. Since 1787, many other nations have written constitutions, only to see them fail. What are some of the strengths of the U.S. Constitution that has allowed it to survive the test of time?
- The U.S. Constitution is considered a milestone in the protection of individual rights. However, it was by no means perfect when it was written. What was lacking in the Constitution when it was written in 1787? Does it lack anything now? If so, what changes do you think are needed?
Separation of Powers
- Why is it important to not concentrate too much power in one branch of government? Give examples of what might happen if there were too much power in the Executive Branch. The Legislative Branch. The Judicial Branch. Give examples of when it might be necessary for one branch to exercise more power than another branch.
- In a parliamentary system, like England's, the executive and legislative powers are often closely interconnected. In a presidential system, like the United States', these powers are separated. What are some of the pros and cons of each system?
- Some have suggested that having a closer working relationship between the branches of government would end "gridlock" and lead to a more efficient government. Others have argued that the separation of powers was specifically created to "slow down" the pace of government to ensure cool deliberation and not emotional reactions.
- What is your opinion?
- Does the separation of powers result in reasonable deliberation, or excessive delay?
- The framers of the Constitution wanted to create a government that was neither too strong nor too weak. Reflecting upon modern-day government, do you think that the framers succeeded? Explain and give examples.
- The United States is a very different nation today than it was when the Constitution was written in 1787. In an age when technology allows us to be in constant contact, why is it still necessary for people in the U.S. to have state government and a national government?
- Is federalism still relevant? Explain and give examples.
- Although the Constitution created a federal government of limited powers, the Supreme Court has ruled that the government has certain "implicit" powers that are necessary for it to function properly. Do you agree with such an interpretation of the Constitution?
- Looking at Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution (the explicit powers of the federal government), what, if any, are some "implicit" powers that you think the federal government needs in order to be effective?
- What "implicit" powers should the national government have to wage the War on Terrorism?
- Are there areas that you believe the federal government should be more powerful?
- Should health care be a national or state responsibility?
- Should education be a national or state responsibility?
- Should border security be in the hands of the state or the federal government?
- It has been more than 200 years since the American Revolution was fought in response to the British government's infringing upon individual rights. Even today, Americans are very protective of their rights. Why do you think that this is so?
- Some have argued that the rights protected in the First Amendment to the Constitution are the most important because they are listed first. What right contained in the Bill of Rights is most important to you? Please explain why.
- Although all branches of government have played important roles in protecting individual rights, the Courts have often taken a leading role in this regard, e.g., Brown v. Board of Education helped to end segregation.
- What do you see as the proper role of the Courts in protecting individual rights?
- When, if ever, should there be restraints on the role of the Courts in regard to individual rights?
- Should the Courts protect individual rights even if that means risking public safety to interfere with the military's efforts to combat terrorism?
- What is the proper balance between individual liberties and public safety?