By Joe Lehmann | USA
The American Constitution, which is the epitome of human enlightenment, includes specific freedoms identified by the first ten amendments. Totaling less than 500 words, the Bill of Rights identifies the limitations of government intrusion into the lives of private citizens. The uniqueness of the Bill of Rights is what sets America apart from every other nation, for it is the only piece of any document to proscribe a government built around the citizens Rights instead of the other way around. It is vitally important for Americans to know about and understand the crowing achievement of the Framers. Unfortunately for the average American, the natural rights enshrined in the first ten Amendments are too often taken for granted and rarely deeply understood. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “We have a complex system of government. You have to teach it to every generation.” (1). In this series, I hope to provide a decent overview of the first ten Amendments. In the process, I am going to to arm my fellow Americans with some knowledge to ensure that our More Perfect Union continues to prosper.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
What it means:
Broadly speaking, the First Amendment has six parts, each one addressing a separate right. The Establishment Clause forbids the government from establishing an official religion, and prevents the government from favoring one religion over another. The second portion is the Free Exercise Clause. It protects the right of American citizens to accept any religious belief and engage in religious rituals. (2). The next four sections are pretty straightforward, they protect the right of the citizens to speak freely, publish their ideas in the media, assemble peacefully, and to petition the government to address problems as they arise.
Where it came from:
Born out of Enlightenment thought, the idea of Freedom of Expression was sacred to our Founders. Because the Founders lived in a world dominated by Popes, Kings, and Queens who imposed ideological orthodoxy on individuals, they were subject to great amounts of censorship. Individuals would regularly be imprisoned or killed for not just questioning authority, but for simply questioning it. As a result, censorship and the freedoms of expression became extremely important to the Founders. According to Jonathan Israel, an Enlightenment historian, “the root of all political and social evil…was lack of freedom of expression and the press.” (3). In the eyes of America’s Founders, the first line of protection against the tyranny government was the defense of the freedoms of expression.
Why it’s important today:
The existence of the United States as a federal democratic republic hinges on our ability to express ourselves freely. In an age where there is both increasing political censorship on college campuses and increasing political criticism, the First Amendment seems to be at the forefront of public life. Before I discuss the important aspects of current rights, it’s important to remember that the freedom of speech is not absolute. You cannot yell fire in a crowded building (4) and libel and slander are both crimes (5). Generally, the only illegal words are the ones “…directly tending to cause a breach of the peace by provoking the person addressed to acts of violence.” (6). In spite of these restrictions, the freedoms of expression are incredibly expansive. On June 19, 2017, Justice Alito delivered an unanimous opinion for the Court striking down a law that allowed the Patent Trademark Office to deny a trademark just because of the viewpoint. In short, the Court decided “Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend.” (7). On June 27, 2005, the Supreme Court also put a stop to the government getting entangled with religion. After forcing a state courthouse to remove the Ten Commandments, Justice O’Connor said “Allowing government to be a potential mouthpiece for competing religious ideas risks the sort of division that might easily spill over into suppression of rival beliefs.” (8). With increased political and religious tensions as well people shouting hate speech is not free speech, it is crucial that we look to the First Amendment and the Supreme Court to protect our most sacred rights that foster civil discussion and national debate.
(1) David Gergen, A Candid Conversation With Sandra Day O’Connor: ‘I Can Still Make a Difference’, Parade, 2012, https://parade.com/125604/davidgergen/30-sandra-day-oconnor-i-can-make-a-difference/ (last visited Jun 26, 2017).
(2) Elliott T. Ash, Free Exercise Clause LII / Legal Information Institute (2010), https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/free_exercise_clause (last visited Jun 28, 2017).
(3) Jonathan I. Israel, Enlightenment contested: philosophy, modernity, and the emancipation of man, 1670-1752 (2013).
(4) Schenck v. United States, 249 U. S. 47 (1919).
(5) 28 U.S. Code § 4101
(6) Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).
(7) Lee v. Tam, ___ U. S. ___ (2017).
(8) McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U. S. 844 (2005). (O’Conner, J., concurring in judgment).