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Shaping the Constitution Center Into a National Town Hall

July 2, 2013 By:
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Jeffrey Rosen

When Jeffrey Rosen proffers his opinion on legal issues like the current controversies over government surveillance and same-sex marriage, he brings years of experience to bear.

Make that hundreds of years.

The president and CEO of the National Constitution Center has a newly developing take on privacy issues thanks to a book project centered on the Jewish contribution to thinking on privacy.

He is honoring a request by the late Alan Westin, who taught public law and government at Columbia University, and whom Rosen lauded as “the greatest privacy scholar of the 20th century,” to complete a book Westin was working on when he died this past February. Westin, who had taken to calling his manuscript “The Hebrew Project,” was documenting what Rosen described as the “remarkable history of how many of our modern notions of privacy, intimacy, anonymity and reserve were all invented in the talmudic era.”

The timing of Rosen’s appointment could hardly have been more serendipitous. In the month since he was named to the helm of the center — which is celebrating its 10th anniversary on July 4 — the firestorm over the government’s surveillance apparatus has erupted into the most important Fourth Amendment issue in recent memory. And the U.S. Supreme Court has been handing down paradigm-shifting decisions on cases involving affirmative action, voting rights, same-sex marriage and more.

It’s no wonder that Rosen, 49, considered by many to be one of the best legal commentators in the United States, says there hasn’t been such a thing as a “typical day” for him since he started his new position.

“This is a crucial time for the country, as we have seen every day over the past weeks,” he said in an interview conducted in his basement-level office, which bore all the signs of someone who was just settling in.

For Rosen, who says he wants to enhance the center’s goal of being “America’s Town Hall,” it is an opportune one as well. The number of constitutional issues in the national spotlight makes the center an invaluable resource for scholars and regular citizens alike, encouraging both analysis and debate.

On the surveillance controversy, Rosen said the central question is as follows: “Is it an unreasonable search or seizure to search through masses of data, whether they’re Internet data or phone records without particularized suspicion,” the term used to determine the standard for when the right to privacy can be breached by authorities.

Like his views on privacy, Rosen’s belief in the importance of informed debate to explore and understand an issue comes from both American and Jewish history. “I’ve learned that the Talmud, like the Constitution, is a conversation, where all arguments are tested and respectfully entertained,” he said. “Talmudic authorities, like the framers of the Constitution, believe that the clash of arguments is the best way of discovering the truth.”

Rosen’s ability to explain dense, complicated legal issues in terms non-lawyers can understand has made him a top “get” for news shows, the real ones as well as the satirical. He appeared on The Colbert Report in June to explain the issues behind the surveillance crisis — a particular point of expertise for the author of books such as The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America and The Naked Crowd: Freedom and Security in an Anxious Age. “It was the thrill of a lifetime to appear on Colbert,” he said, “but it was also daunting and I’m glad it’s over.”

The Manhattan native, who was educated at Harvard, Oxford and Yale Law School has been the legal affairs editor for The New Republic since 1992 (a position he will continue to hold) as well as a staff writer at The New Yorker and a contributor to The New York Times, The Atlantic and NPR, among other outlets. He offers essays, commentaries and analysis — but no punditry. “I’ve never been a good pundit,” he said with a laugh. “I have no idea what’s going to happen.”

That lack of prognosticative ability even extended to his new job. While Rosen had had plenty of interaction with the Constitution Center — he was an adviser during its planning phase, and he was a visiting scholar during 2003, its first year — he initially turned down the opportunity to apply for the position because he was happy with his positions at The New Republic and as a law professor at George Washington University, from where he is taking a multiyear sabbatical.

“But when I met with the search committee,” he recounted, “we realized instantly that our interests were aligned: I love hosting conversations, and that’s what the center was looking for.”

As it celebrates its first decade in existence, the Constitution Center is focusing on its tripartite goals of being a state-of-the-art museum of all things constitutional; a center for both on site and online civic education through its Annenberg Center for Education and Outreach; and “America’s Town Hall.” The work to improve and expand upon the center’s museum has already begun, with the opening of “The 1968 Exhibit,” which explores one of the most tumultuous years in American history. The center also recently broke ground on a new gallery that will display one of only 12 remaining original copies of the Bill of Rights.

The latest example of Rosen’s vision for making the center into a national exchange of ideas can be found on its website. There, the “Constitution Daily” (blog.constitutioncenter.org) features substantive, compelling debates between Rosen and Michael McConnell, the director of the constitutional law center at Stanford Law School, over the recent Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action. For Rosen, this type of exercise is essential to propel the national conversation on these types of issues. “I really want to increase our visibility as America’s town hall by sponsoring these constitutional conversations on the Web, television and radio so that citizens across the country will think of this as the place where they can hear the best arguments and then make up their own minds.”

Rosen has been expanding his own point of view on laws or, more precisely, on commandments. He was raised as a secular Jew by his parents, Dr. Sidney and Estelle Rosen, both noted psychiatrists. But he has found himself drawn to Judaism as an adult, he said. “In recent years, I have become quite engaged in learning about all of the talmudic material I missed as a kid.”

He said he found inspiration at a conference on privacy a few years ago, where he heard Shlomo Yaffe, of Chabad Harvard, “give the best speech on privacy I have ever heard.”

Rosen asked if he could study Talmud with him. “We have spent the past couple years having periodic sessions, reading Maimonides, some Talmud and some literature of the Musar movement. I have found it to be tremendously stimulating.”

Rosen also has pursued his study of the Musar movement, which began in the 19th century as a way to further ethical and spiritual discipline through the pursuit of ethics, education and culture. He and Franklin Foer, the editor of The New Republic, have studied the Musar movement with Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Adas Israel in Washington, D.C.

Rosen is expanding his Jewish immersion not only by taking up “The Hebrew Project,” but by working on a biography of the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Rosen particularly noted the justice’s transformation from having almost no involvement with Judaism to becoming a leader of the American Zionist movement in his 50s.

Although working on the two books and the summer season at the center will keep him occupied, Rosen said he is looking forward to spending more time with his family. He currently splits his time between a spare bedroom in a friend’s house in Fitler Square and his home in the Washington, D.C. area, where he lives with his wife, Christine Rosen, who is a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and the couple’s twin 6-year-old boys.

One of his sons, said Rosen, might be a little too excited about making his first visit to the Constitution Center. “I have keys to every door in the building, so he wanted to know if we can open all the doors when he visits. I said no, that would be a violation of the right to privacy.”

National Constitution Center
525 Arch St., Philadelphia
constitutioncenter.org; 215-409-6600

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