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Adman gives Bill of Rights a rewrite

Evanston resident's website dusts off Constitution for a new generation

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Longtime adman Pat Shiplett started a website that puts a more modern spin on the Constitution. (Chris Walker, Chicago Tribune / October 20, 2011)

On his new constitutional rights website, Evanston resident Pat Shiplett tells the story behind the Declaration of Independence this way:

"More than two hundred years ago, the American colonists got ticked off at the way England was jacking them around. They got so angry they worked up the Declaration of Independence and politely told King George III if he didn't like it, he was welcome to shove it up his Royal Highness. Turned out to be a big freakin' deal. …

"Next thing you know, they were at war against England, which, by the way, happened to have the biggest, baddest army going. Now here's the cool part: Over the next few years, the Americans laid a can of Ye Olde Whoop-Ass on KG III and his Redcoats. We've been free folk ever since …"

Inspired by "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "The Simpsons," Shiplett said he created to blow the dust off the Bill of Rights for people ages 16 to 30.

And blow the dust off, he did.

The website opens with the Declaration of Independence because the document, which asserts that "all men are created equal," sets a tone regarding our "unalienable rights" that has always been so inspirational, even though it hasn't always rung true in practice.

Shiplett, 66, doesn't pretend to be a historian or legal scholar. He's a longtime adman who has had a lifelong infatuation with the U.S. Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights. But for such an important document — and one that's often misinterpreted or misrepresented, especially in political circles — it hasn't always been the most inviting of reads.

So he wanted to make it more accessible, by making it a bit irreverent and humorous.

"I think an awful lot of people would say reading about the Constitution is a disappointing experience," Shiplett said. "The language is difficult, and so are the ideas. I wanted to introduce the rights and explain how they shape our lives and get people excited about them."

Besides laying out the Bill of Rights, the site has a blog that looks at news stories and points out the constitutional rights that are in play. He has blogged about whether a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York were assembling peaceably when they were pepper-sprayed by police and about how some states' interpretation of the Voting Rights Act may affect voters.

There's also an interactive quiz. Consider this: Protests against what war helped end the military draft? A) Battle for Middle Earth; B) Vietnam War; C) WWII; D) War of 1812. The answer, of course, is B.

The website features videos to help illuminate the controversies inherent with many of the rights.

For example, two YouTube videos help contextualize the Second Amendment. One video is of the late actor and National Rifle Association President Charlton Heston at an NRA convention, defending his right to bear arms. "From my cold dead hands," he says, explaining the only way he'd relinquish his guns.

The other video is a movie trailer for filmmaker Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine," the 2002 documentary that examined the Columbine High School shooting and the proliferation of guns and gun violence in this country.

Shiplett said he tries not to have the website skew liberal or conservative.

"I am trying to be evenhanded," he said. "People on the right are champions of the Constitution and talk about it a lot. But it's public property. If I lean one way or the other, I might lose one group — and the Constitution belongs to all of us."

Shiplett said he wanted to focus on the Bill of Rights rather than the Constitution as a whole because he believes those rights truly affect people's lives.

"Those rights are the consumer benefits, and they are what people really care about," he said. "The Constitution lays out when the president is supposed to be inaugurated, but does that really affect our daily lives?

"I believe (the rights) are the part of the Constitution that's most unique about our country. If you look at the First Amendment, it's about all the things Congress can't create and can't do. It's a law that protects us against our own government, which is a really unique protection."

Shiplett conceived the idea for the website in 2008. For two years he had been doing freelance work as a newspaper cartoonist, creating several political cartoons for the Tribune.

"I got to a state in my (advertising) career when I could take it easy and not go after big clients," Shiplett said. "I considered drawing cartoons a hobby.

"Then I realized they were based on constitutional rights: cruel and unusual punishment, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, torture, birth control, which is a right-to-privacy issue, and immigration."

Shiplett said he approached the website project, which he considers to be a noncommercial public service, the same way he would have if it were a paying client of his advertising firm. He sat down and went through the documents, taking notes and outlining portions. Then he translated them, with the help of a couple of college students, in a way that he hoped young people would enjoy.

Shiplett said that in the future he would like to add Constitution tests, similar to the ones students have to pass to graduate high school. He said that as a tutor in an English literacy class, he also sees the benefit of one day creating a Spanish version of the site.

He said it's important that we know our rights or others will interpret them and define them for us.

"Otherwise, fringe people will come along and say what the Constitution means, and frankly, they're making it up," he said. "We're all better off if we look at (the Constitution) and read it and understand it for ourselves."
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