Sandra L. Lynch
U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
Boston University Baccalaureate Speech
May 20, 2012
Thank you, Dean Hill, for such a warm introduction.
It is clear Boston University has thrived under President Brown’s leadership. Among his other attributes, it is impossible to say “no” to him. After I had accepted, with pleasure, the President’s invitation to receive an honorary degree, only then did he tell me he would like me to give this Baccalaureate address.
I feel a bit like those medieval minstrels, or even little Tommy Tucker from the nursery rhyme, who had to sing first before having supper. What a glorious supper this occasion is, filled with joy and pride, and hope, and expectations.
This morning’s service envelops you in the spiritual realm. Later today you honor people of distinction from technology, and commerce, the arts, the sciences, and military service. I want to speak of the civil realm: the realm of citizenship, of love of country, and of your government.
One of the greatest fortunes of your lives is that you are participants in our American democracy, with its independent judiciary and its system of justice. Our democracy is built on both the checks and balances structure of the three branches of government and on the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, limiting government.
The executive and legislative branches are meant to reflect the political will of the voters. In the judicial branch, unlike the other two branches, we judges take an oath of impartiality, not to be partisan, to do our jobs “without fear or favor.”
This system is the envy of the world. Your counterparts elsewhere, in the Arab Spring, in Russia, in Syria, in Iran, in China, in Chile, to give a few examples, have put their lives at risk to achieve what you have.
Dr. Martin Luther King said: “There is nothing in the world greater than freedom.” Under our secular “sacred” text, the U.S. Constitution, you enjoy considerable freedoms, including the freedom of academic inquiry here at Boston University. You have freedom to worship your own religion and not be forced to join another. You enjoy the freedom from arbitrary police and government action.
Perhaps most significantly, you have the ability to change your government and your country. You enjoy freedom of speech, of association, and the benefits of free press. You have the ability to vote, the ability to communicate your views, and the ability to associate together with others to challenge and change a government you do not like. You have the ability to make laws and to change the laws, and to do so in order to address the problems which you face.
These freedoms are important human values in their own right and worth preserving. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has said, our Constitutional values are not embedded in the human gene code. Far from it: they must be taught, and valued, and used, lest they be lost.
Our system of government has worked remarkably well for over two centuries. It has gotten our country through profound problems and changed who we are, and done so for the better. My own life experiences tell me that is true, and it will be true for you.
When I came to BU, our country was rocked by unrest and faced difficult issues. My generation wondered if we would survive. It was the era of the possibility of nuclear annihilation, of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti-war movement. Blatant race and gender discrimination were prevalent. Extreme inequities in access to opportunity had led to demonstrations, riots, the burning of neighborhoods and clashes with police. During this time and in the Boston area, I was tear gassed while marching to protest the war in Vietnam and I was called foul names by ugly crowds when I marched with people of color in favor of civil rights. Talk of revolution and dissolution was in the air.
My fears about the future were captured in the words of William Butler Yeats, in his poem “The Second Coming.” He wrote: “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” The problems then were daunting. But under our democracy, we got through them.
The hymn we just sang at this service was “Behold a broken world.” You know better than I the problems of this broken world and that you and your country must somehow address them.
There is much corrosive cynicism today, much polarization, much lack of civility. Some say they have no faith in government to address problems. You could reasonably ask whether the fact that our democracy has not failed us in the past is any assurance at all that it will lead you to solutions in the future.
My response is that our democratic form of government and the tools the Constitution gives you provide some of the best ways you have of addressing current problems. And I also answer that, if you do not use those tools, including your right to vote, to speak and to organize in order to assure government will be honest, responsive and to be relevant, the chances of your finding solutions are considerably less.
You are graduating and being asked to take responsibility for yourself and your own life. The scope of that responsibility goes beyond yourself, to the sort of society in which you live. President John F. Kennedy famously said, “to ask not what your country could do for you, but what you could do for your country.” Your country needs you.
That responsibility means the preserving of the institutions of your democracy, which are the institutions of government.
It also means exercising those freedoms that the Constitution has given you, and to do so in order to shape your society and your futures.
BU students often have done so before. Forty five years ago, students on this campus used those tools and changed our country. Defying a state law, a man named William Baird gave a lecture at Boston University to over 2,000 students. The topic was birth control. An unmarried 19-year-old female student accepted from Baird some contraceptive foam. Married people, but not unmarried people, could legally be given contraception. Baird was arrested and convicted for violating a state law prohibiting distribution of contraceptives to unmarried people. The penalty was up to five years of imprisonment.
The whole event had been deliberately set up on the BU campus in order to bring a constitutional challenge. The federal court on which I now sit held the statute unconstitutional and released Baird on the writ of habeas corpus. In 1972 the Supreme Court agreed, in a case is called Eisenstadt v. Baird, after the then Sheriff and Mr. Baird. When the story is told, it is most often about Baird, who deserves great credit.
Let me shift the perspective. Of all the college campuses in Boston, this took place at BU and that does not surprise me – – BU has always looked to the future. More than that, credit must be given to the BU students who went to the lecture, and particularly to the unmarried 19-year-old female undergraduate, who made the test case possible. Those students wanted to change an unjust law and to expand the protection of individual freedoms. This was no small matter and it was not just about contraceptives. The overturning of the state law led to the development of doctrines of constitutionally protected personal privacy, which have reshaped our society.
These changes take time, they take patience, they take perseverance. As Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
You have keys to affect your future and to take steps to be sure that “the center holds.” Take responsibility. Go forward with your intelligence, your education, and with courage. And use all the tools and freedoms our American democracy and its system of law give you. No one is better suited than you.
We give into your hands the safekeeping of our Constitution and our democracy. Please, we ask you, keep them safe and flourishing.