Story posted March 10, 2008
Richard Morgan '59, Bowdoin's William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Constitutional and International Law and Government, has been selected to give a talk before the Supreme Court Historical Society in Washington, D.C., on April 1, 2008.
His talk on the landmark 1940s flag-salute cases "Gobitis and Barnette" is part of the 2008 Leon Silverman Lecture Series, a highly prestigious public lecture series that takes place in Supreme Court chambers on Capitol Hill. Morgan will have the distinct honor of being introduced by Chief Justice John G. Robert Jr.
"It was very pleasant to be asked," noted Morgan, who is a leading expert on constitutional law and the First Amendment. "I know about the series and have often used the journal they put out. Normally I just read the work of the justices and comment on what they do," he added, smiling. "If I can say something that will raise some eyebrows, I will consider that my time has been well spent."
The Supreme Court Historical Society was founded in 1974 to increase the public's awareness of the Court's contributions to the nation's rich constitutional heritage. In addition to support for research and publications, the society presents the lecture series by distinguished scholars focusing on a particular period of the Court's history.
This year's series, "The Ephemeral Nature of Landmark Cases," addresses the fleeting nature of landmark cases, some of which lose their legal luster over time, even as their historic significance lingers.
Morgan's talk will address flag-salute cases of 1940 and 1943 that are part of the "canon" of constitutional law, though not widely taught today. The cases center on students who were dismissed for refusing to salute the American flag. In the first case, the Supreme Court upheld a compulsory flag-salute law in Pennsylvania, a decision which Morgan said "was not well received in professional circles or in the press."
In a similar 1943 case in W. Virginia, the Supreme Court overturned its own prior ruling. "The government cannot extract consent to its legitimacy, honor, or status," said Morgan.
The architect behind this landmark ruling was Justice Robert H. Jackson. "It is considered perhaps Jackson's greatest opinion," noted Morgan, who wrote about the case in one of his own books, The Supreme Court and Religion. "It's eloquent and from a technical point of view it's marvelous because he reframed the issue to one of free speech—not of exemption from the law because of religious belief as had been argued. It's about whether you can force anyone to salute the flag."
Morgan has contributed to many books and journals and is author of numerous books, including The Politics of Religious Conflict and Domestic Intelligence: Monitoring Dissent in America.
He earned his Masters and Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he taught for four years before attending Harvard Law School as a fellow in law and government. He has taught at Bowdoin since 1969.
For information on admission to Morgan's 6 p.m. talk, which is followed by a reception, call 202-543-0400.