Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman Celebrate the 200th Birthday of the Guardian of Our Freedoms

updated 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

In 1977, when Caroline Kennedy was a 19-year-old free-lance reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, she landed the plum assignment of covering Elvis Presley's funeral. She accepted, but not without qualms. "They want me to write it just because my name is Kennedy," the daughter of the late President told a friend. "I really haven't done anything with my life yet."

She couldn't say that now. This month Kennedy, 33, and her friend and fellow attorney Ellen Alderman, 32, are celebrating the publication of their first book. In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action. A collection of court cases illustrating each of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, the book is being published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the bill's ratification. Advance reviews have been good ("page-turning prose," adjudged Booklist), and Kennedy and Alderman are satisfied that their work offers needed illumination on what they term "the most comprehensive protection of individual freedom ever written." Says Alderman: "The Bill of Rights is working every time you pick up the newspaper or speak out about something. It's there every day, and we hope that comes across in these stories."

The bill's significance first became apparent to the authors during the civil rights class they took as Columbia Law School students in 1987. Like many Americans (59 percent, according to one poll), they had only the haziest notion of what the Bill of Rights was. "I'd heard of it, but I don't think I knew it was the first 10 amendments to the Constitution," says Kennedy. Their class explored the variety of human dramas that have turned on the various amendments, including the case of the editor who claimed it was his magazine's right under the 1st amendment to print the secret of the H-bomb.

"At first we were saying, 'Wouldn't these cases make good films?' " says Alderman, a Cornell graduate who had worked on documentaries for PBS. Ultimately she and Kennedy, who graduated from Harvard, decided on a book instead. "I remember coming back to school over Christmas vacation," says Kennedy, "and thinking, 'We really must want to do this if we're in the library over vacation.' "

They chose some cases they had discussed in class ("If they shocked people, that was the test," Kennedy says), added others like the failure of Indians in Northern California to block a road being built on sacred tribal ground by invoking freedom of religion, and they traveled across the country interviewing subjects. They split up the writing chores case by case, then edited each other's work during long sessions at the Manhattan apartment that Kennedy shares with her husband, Edwin Schlossberg, 46, and their daughters Rose, 2, and Tatiana, 9 months. "I wanted to be around the children," says Kennedy, who is not currently working as an attorney. Alderman, who is single, took a six-month leave of absence from her job as a New York City entertainment lawyer.

The authors came away from their project with renewed respect for the Bill of Rights—though they didn't always like the way it was applied. "Some of the stories in the book are uplifting," says Alderman, "but sometimes, as with the California Indians, it doesn't go the way you think it might or should." Says Kennedy: "We're seeing countries all around the world now who are trying to have something like our Bill of Rights to protect them. We don't realize how fortunate we are."

Spoken like a true Kennedy. But this child of JFK balks at connecting her book with her father's concern for human rights. "Sure, I've grown up being interested in public issues and thinking this country's great," she says, "but the idea for this book was our own."

She should be most gratified, then, by what Erwin Knoll, editor of The Progressive magazine, which printed the H-bomb secret in 1979, has to say about her. "We had a long conversation. She was wonderful," Knoll says. "She asked the right questions and was extremely well-informed. Incidentally—she isn't the Caroline Kennedy, is she?"

—Kim Hubbard, Sue Carswell in New York

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