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Julie Silverbrook '12 relishes "Constitutional Conversations"

  • Julie Silverbrook '12
    Julie Silverbrook '12
    Silverbrook, the driving force behind the Constitutional Conversations program, is currently juggling her third-year law studies with her new duties as executive director of the Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource) in Washington, DC.
    Photo by Gretchen Bedell

To say that Julie Silverbrook '12 has had an active life outside the classroom during law school would be an understatement. During her time at William & Mary, she has served as the chair of the Student Division of the Institute of Bill of Rights Law and as the senior articles editor for the Bill of Rights Journal. She also created the D.C. Women's Law Student Initiative, in partnership with the Women's Bar Association of Washington, D.C., and chairs a special committee for the National Association of Women Judges.

In addition to these endeavors, Silverbrook has been the moving force behind the Constitutional Conversations program, a workshop series led by William & Mary law students that is designed is to engage people of all ages in a dialogue about their duties and rights as citizens.  The Virginia Public Library Director's Association honored it as the Outstanding Cooperative Program of 2011.  Silverbrook's involvement began during her first semester of law school when she was asked to head what was then called the Hampton Roads School Project.

"I was eager to roll up my sleeves and get involved in something substantive," she said. "After experiencing some difficulties gaining access to middle school and high school classrooms, I decided to revamp the program and expand it to include the entire Williamsburg community."

Silverbrook '12 at the program's 2010 kick-off event at the Williamsburg Library.At the suggestion of classmate Brendan Clegg '12, Silverbrook renamed the program "Constitutional Conversations." She spent the summer after her first year of law school creating a workshop curriculum and gaining support from local organizations and officials. The program, which is supported by the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and the Williamsburg Regional Library, includes monthly workshops in which participants discuss different aspects of constitutional law.

"One of the most important things I have discovered in life is that, regardless of your age, you will always have the opportunity to be a student - to spend your life in the pursuit of knowledge," Silverbrook said. "You learn both by teaching and by being taught. The Constitutional Conversations program allows law students to pursue knowledge by teaching others while also enabling some of Williamsburg's oldest citizens to once again assume the role of student."

Originally from Bucks County, Pa., Silverbrook said she grew up in a town similar to Williamsburg in both size and history. She earned her college degree at The George Washington University, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa and graduated summa cum laude. She was awarded the GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Scholar Award -- the highest academic award given to a student in the arts and sciences college. She also garnered the John C. Morgan Prize from the school's Department of Political Science.

Silverbrook said she traces her interest in constitutional law to the summer of 2004. She was shocked by the use of free speech cages used to confine protestors at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. Shortly thereafter, she attended a talk on free speech in wartime given by Nadine Strossen, ACLU's president at the time.

"Immediately after her talk, I hit the local Barnes & Noble and picked up 'Eternally Vigilant: Free Speech in the Modern Era,' a collection of articles edited by Professors Lee Bollinger and Geoffrey Stone," she said. "After that, I was totally hooked on the topic."

She continued to pursue her newfound interest during college and was awarded the Luther Rice Research Fellowship to study the development of the "clear and present danger" standard. As part of her research, she traveled around the country and met with a number of constitutional scholars. She said the experience demonstrated to her the importance of discussing the contours of constitutional rights.

"It is this type of conversation that I have aimed to recreate with the Constitutional Conversations program," she said.

For Silverbrook, the most rewarding aspect of the program has been the interest it has sparked in the community. She said her proudest moment occurred in September 2011, when she moderated a candidates forum in Gloucester. During the forum, one of the candidates told her that his experience with the program inspired him to run for public office.

Silverbrook's resume illustrates her devotion to public service. Before enrolling in law school, she worked for the U.S. House of Representatives, the Washington, D.C., attorney general, the Constitution Project, and the National Association of Women Judges. She is currently juggling her third-year studies with her new duties as the executive director of the Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource) in Washington, D.C.  Silverbrook will join the project full-time after graduation. ConSource is revolutionizing the way people interact with history by democratizing access to source materials of the U.S. Constitution - letters, journals, newspapers, articles, speeches, and other first-hand records - so that any citizen can research and learn from the document's rich intellectual history.

Cabell Research Professor of Law Timothy Zick praised Silverbrook's zeal as a student. "Julie is one of the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic constitutional law students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching," he said.

Zick said the Constitutional Conversations program is an asset to the community and credited its success in large part to Silverbrook's efforts. "The program is a real testament to Julie's considerable energy, drive, and talent," he said. "Julie has been a real intellectual presence at the Law School, and I am very pleased that she will continue to be involved in Constitutional Conversations after she graduates."

Editor's Note: Silverbrook expressed her gratitude to all those who made the Constitutional Conversations program a success. She wanted to extend a special thanks to Professor Neal Devins, Professor Rebecca Green, Dean Davison Douglas, Melody Nichols, Loretta Hannum, Bill White, Patrick Golden, Anna Killius '13, Alex Conser '13, Amelia Vance '13, Alexa Roggenkamp '13, Ryen Rasmus '12, Timothy Huffstutter '12, Kristin Bergman '14, Caitlin Cater '14, Mark Rawls '14, Kaitan Gupta '13, Anna Gillespie '13, and Marissa Goldberg '13