Professor Shannon Gilreath (JD ’02) addresses students and guests on Constitution Day

Photo of Professor Shannon Gilreath lecturing at podium

Professor Shannon Gilreath (JD ’02) addressed students and guests at noon on Constitution Day, Thursday, Sept. 17, at Wake Forest University School of Law in a lecture titled, “Does the Constitution Deserve Our Fidelity: Lessons on Equality and Liberty.”

Gilreath is nationally recognized as an expert on issues of equality, sexual minorities and constitutional interpretation. An advocate of interdisciplinary study, he regularly teaches Constitutional Law, Sexual Identity and Law, Freedom of Religion and Gender and the Law in the law school, as well as various other topical seminars in the law school and in the university’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department, where he enjoys an appointment as core faculty. WFU Provost Rogan Kersh selected Professor Gilreath to give the Constitution Day lecture.

The presentation began with a conversation about the foundation and origins of the U.S. Constitution.

“I am here as a bit of a walking paradox,” Gilreath said. “During the long, hot Philadelphia summer when the Constitution was written, North Carolina was actually represented by one of my ancestors…so I am here speaking for my Founding Fathers, but I have some harsh words.”

Gilreath encouraged the guests in the room to ask themselves whether they can talk seriously about the Constitution.

“All around the country, college students are being told that the Constitution is a great charter. I am here to tell you that the Constitution is a piece of paper with some words on it,” Gilreath said.

Gilreath spoke about the historical nature of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, specifically noting John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. He touched on the fact that these men were considered elitist and that many of the men at the time who held power, also owned slaves.
Gilreath talked about the numerous interpretations of the Constitution and how decoding the Constitution is a necessary project.

“Because the Constitution is a piece of paper with words on it, it is open to interpretation,” he said. “I have the good fortune of spending my professional life writing about these questions and trying to articulate exactly what equality means. It is a challenge we each are faced with.”

The core of the lecture was the discussion of the relationship between freedom of speech and equality. Gilreath asked listeners to think about the words ‘freedom of speech’ and ask, “free for whom?”
“Men and women are still being bought and sold. We don’t call it property anymore though, we call it speech,” Gilreath said, referencing pornography as big business.

While Gilreath urged guests to realize that the only thing that has been changed is the name, from property to speech, he doesn’t urge people to abandon the Constitution and give up faith in legitimacy.

“I am not advocating the abandonment of the Constitution…the problem is with interpretive perspective and commitment,” Professor Gilreath said. “ [We must have] the unwavering commitment on all of our parts to equality and making equality meaningful.”