The Constitution: (A layman’s point of view) The First Amendment

When I was in high school, we briefly studied the Constitution in Civics class, and then promptly forgot all about it. I lived much of my life since then paying little attention to my “rights”. Nothing seemed to get in the way of me doing pretty much whatever I wanted, legally.

Today, however, things have changed. Every day it seems I hear some battle over the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. Infringement of our “Rights” seems to be around every corner. Many people seem to be afraid the government is on the verge of disolving the Constitution and turning us into a dictatorship of some sort. Whether of not that is true, and whether or not I agree is something for another post. In this post I’d simply like to look at these first ten amendments and discuss my understanding of them.

According to Monpelier.com, the home site of James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights,

“The ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution that we know as the Bill of Rights were not included in the original U.S. Constitution, but were passed by Congress and ratified by the states in 1791. Though once confident that the Constitution did not give the federal government any powers that could endanger individual rights (thus rendering a bill of rights unnecessary) and even worried that the listing of individual rights could be potentially dangerous to the people (if they were to be interpreted as the only rights of the people), James Madison eventually recognized that many people were unwilling to approve the Constitution unless such a bill of rights was added. Thanks to Madison’s influence, the U.S. Bill of Rights now affirms individual rights, including freedom of religion, freedom of the press, the right to bear arms, security against unreasonable search and seizure, and the right to trial by jury.”

So the Bill of Rights were essentially an afterthought, written only when it became clear that they were necessary for the public’s acceptance of the Constitution. Having just fought a revolution, those folks took their freedoms seriously.

The First Amendment: 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.

Pretty simple, right? Only forty-five words. But what does it say?

Let’s take the second part first – Freedom of Speech. My view is that it gives me the right to say pretty much anything, anywhere I want. If I want to say “Nixon is an asshole”, or “Harry Truman was a toad”, I can say that without any worry. Since both were public figures and both are dead, I also don’t have to worry about either one suing me for libel or slander (more on that later). I can stand in my front yard or on a public street and protest or complain about anything I like.  If I have a group of like-minded people, we can assemble peacefully on a street corner or in front of the White House and air our grievances, no matter what they are.  There is no such thing as a “free speech zone”, a concept that arose when people tried to corral protestors. I can say what I want, when I want, and where I want in public, with a few limitations:

I cannot, for instance, falsely yell “fire” in a movie theater, because it could cause a panic and endanger people. Notice I used the word falsely. Obviously if there were really a fire, it would be a good idea to call out. Other obvious actions, such as calling in a bomb threat, are not generally considered “free speech”. But again, that’s pretty obvious, and not largely questioned.  All in all, most everything in speech or writing is protected by this Amendment, including, sad to say, the right to burn the American Flag as a form of protest. As much as I dispise this, it gets dicey when we begin to parse what is free speech and what is not.

Hate Speech 

Which brings me to the next point, hate speech: We seem to be living in Brave New World these days when all kinds of derogatory speech can be considered “hate speech”. If I call someone a name that is offensive by race, sexual orientation, etc, I can be accused of hate speech. It may be crude, it may be offensive, it may be nasty. But is it protected under the Constitution?

So far, at least, the courts have generally ruled that “hate speech” in itself is not illegal. That doesn’t mean, however, if I call you a name, you can’t poke me in the nose. But it does mean I can legally say it. This is not a small distinction today. Many colleges, for example, have set up “speech codes” which confer punishment for speaking this way. A private college, of course, can do as it chooses within the confines of its property. A public college, not so much. Again, the courts have often ruled against such rules on public-owned campuses. And that is a good thing. It seems to me that many folks have gotten far too sensitive, and have come up with the notion they can create laws to control the behaviors of others. If you or I are hurt in some material way by speech or writing, we have civil recourse. We can sue for slander or libel if we prove we’ve been harmed by another’s speech. That’s plenty of protection.

Many countries around the world pose strict imposition on freedom of speech. We are the exception. When a nation can curtail the speech of its citizens, it can curtail other things as well. Our freedom of speech is not small change.

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 Freedom of religion: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Wow, is this one misunderstood. In a nutshell, it means the government will mind its own business when it comes to religion. Many of the first settlers here came to escape some form of religious persecution. Clearly, this becomes a most important part of our laws.

Religion is protected in the United States. You can worship any way you choose without fear of the government. You can pick your church, or indeed start your own if you wish.  You can be as religious or non-religious as you choose: Freedom.

On the flip side, the government may not create a religion. Unlike other countries, there is no “official” or state-sponsored religion here, and thank God for that.

Separation of Church and State

Read the Amendment. Read it again. Notice there is nothing about said separation. It is not in the First Amendment nor anywhere else in the Constitution. It does not appear.

This notion, which far too many people believe is a law, came from a letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury (CT) Baptist Association in 1802. Here’s what he said:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Jefferson was explaining to the Baptists that the First Amendment prevented the government from creating a religion, thus “building a wall of separation between Church and State”. He was not suggesting that religion had no place in government. Quite the contrary, religion permeated government at all levels from public prayer to national mottos (In God We Trust).

Today this “separation” nonsense gets bounced around like a ping pong ball. I call it nonsense because it amounts to some people getting “offended” by a prayer at a high school graduation, or the Ten Commandments posted at a city hall. Nonsense. Spineless government officials have backed away from challenges on this front for years now, allowing an erronious notion to become a “law” by default.

I’ve gotten more wordy that I planned. We need to understand our freedoms. We need to protect them. No one can ever be permitted to take them away from us, no matter what.

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