Written over 230 years ago, the United States Constitution has proven to be incredibly enduring. That it still provides the political structure for the most powerful country in the world attests to the brilliance of its writers. The separation of powers described in the Constitution still serve to keep our government functional, and the Bill of Rights still protects our individual liberties.
But while the Constitution’s longevity is remarkable, it also represents a bit of a problem because so much has changed in the world since the signing of the original document. Twenty-first-century technologies like assault rifles and modern surveillance techniques were inconceivable to the founders. This leaves us with the difficult task of trying to interpret how best to use an eighteenth-century document here in the twenty-first century.
The issue of surveillance becomes problematic when considering the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizures.” With modern technology, police can place Global Positioning System (GPS) devices underneath suspects’ cars, even without a warrant. Whether or not this is infringing on an individual’s right, and whether it constitutes an “unreasonable search,” remains open to debate.
The internet is another modern innovation that challenges the norms established by the founders. The first amendment guarantees the freedom of speech. Individuals are supposed to express themselves without fear of government reprisal, but the internet era has complicated what seemed like a straightforward concept. Groups and individuals intent on doing harm, including terrorist organizations, utilize the web’s capabilities to spread their message to countless people. Platforms like Google and Twitter have been pressured to identify and remove any such material. But, if this pressure comes from the United States government, would this not represent an infringement on free speech? And how would we determine what speech is so harmful and so dangerous that an exception to the First Amendment is acceptable? These questions are among the most pertinent of our time.
The Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to bear arms, is also keenly debated. Modern weapons like the AR-15 are capable of inflicting incredible harm in a short period of time. Many advocates of stricter gun control measures argue that this enhanced technology necessitates a refined interpretation of the eighteenth-century amendment, written when firearms were much simpler. Others contend that the spirit of the amendment requires it be followed strictly even in the modern age. These issues are not easily resolved and strike at the core of how we should proceed as a society.