Comparative Constitutional Law Academy – Wrap-up

Editors Note: A group of W&L Law students was  in Germany over spring break  for an intensive week-long exploration of German law and legal culture. The German Comparative Law Academy, organized by Prof. Russ Miller, brings together American and German law students for a scholarly exchange on both countries’ legal systems, with an emphasis on Constitutional Law. Our final post in the series is authored by Prof. Miller himself.

by Russell Miller

I couldn’t have been more proud of the really brave W&L students who undertook this challenging week of hard academic work, cultural immersion, and tourism.  The harsh winter conditions made all of this an even greater challenge!  In one week we read and discussed nearly 500 pages of material – beginning with a debate on comparative methodology and theory.  We then moved through two crash-courses in German and American free speech jurisprudence.  We ended the week with intensive exposure to the free speech decisions of the courts we were visiting, including the German Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights.  On those occasions we had the chance to speak about those cases with judges and clerks of two of Europe’s most prestigious courts.  Besides all this work with primary law and relevant academic literature, we tried, in the short time we had, to link the distinct approaches to free speech that we found in Germany and the U.S. with the distinct textual, legal-infrastructural, and social frameworks in which they operate.  We saw, for example, that the German constitutional protection for free speech provides an exception for legislation that protects honor.  And we noted, for example, that the U.S. Supreme Court has greater discretion to pick the cases it decides.  In particular, our bitter-cold, heart-wrenching visit to the Buchenwald concentration camp helped illuminate Germany’s lack of tolerance for speech connected with the Nazi past.  We also saw, through our late-night screening of the film “The People v. Larry Flynt” how American’s more liberal free-speech jurisprudence is closely tied to deeper individualist trends in American society.

At the European Court of Human Rights

At the European Court of Human Rights

But that wasn’t all we achieved.  We developed and deepened friendships with our colleagues at the Brandt School of Public Policy who represented a half-dozen countries themselves.  Our conversations and seminar discussions toggled back-and-forth seamlessly between Brazil and Afghanistan and Mexico and Germany and Pakistan and the U.S.  The cultural awareness and intellectual flexibility this required revealed a prized set of skills amongst the W&L students.  Call it socially-sensitive intelligence.  I was always proud of the respectful – but not condescending – approach our students took towards these new colleagues and friends.

And we did some important cultural work as well.  A highlight for me – and I hope the students – was the magical concert we attended in Weimar’s new music hall on Monday night.  Besides some “hits” from Beethoven, we were mesmerized by the performance of the brilliant, young pianist Olga Scheps.  Sitting in the hall’s second row with $30 student tickets, we were in arms length of an emerging classical superstar whose languid, sensual style at the keyboard infused her performance with incredible emotion and grace – more ballet than a mere piano solo.  I hope the students suffered the same “irritation” as we moved that transcend evening, just a few hours and a few kilometers away to visit Buchenwald.  As our academic host Prof. Florian Hoffmann (Director of the Erfurt – Brandt School of Public Policy) said, this is the German dilemma.

It was a grand, grand tour.  We ate every scrap of chocolate we came across.  We learned new and exciting pronunciations for our names.  In our free-time, relaxing on trains and street cars or in cafes, we light-heartedly designed a new constitutional regime for a fictional land that – as best as I could tell – featured prominent and powerful positions for the students and a more subservient role for me.  We celebrated birthdays in and out of season.  And we only lost one student – for a few brief hours – on a training rushing through the Rhine valley towards the Black Forest.

I was thrilled at the W&L students seriousness, good-humor, deep insight, grace and warmth.  They were great ambassadors for the U.S. and W&L.  As we parted on Friday afternoon – each going our separate ways but with Lexington our ultimate destination – I couldn’t help feeling deep pangs of appreciation and admiration and affection for the group.  I only hope they learned as much from the experience as I learned from sharing it with them.

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