The First Amendment

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The idea of a “bulwark against tyranny” is probably an overused phrase.  But it applies perfectly to the First Amendment, the core American canon that may be our best export.  

These are days Americans are scrambling to remember the school civics lesson that explained rights of advocacy guaranteed by the Constitution.  In those classes long ago the Amendment probably registered as just another academic exercise. But the present instability of the Presidency requires that we be awake and pay heed to its words.  As students we were assured that The Amendment ratified in 1791 was our birthright.  We may need to test that promise.

The wording is brief but empowering.

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.

Even as non-experts we can still understand the broad outlines of the Amendment’s five overlapping guarantees:

  • We have the right to be practice a religious tradition or not.  With few exceptions pertaining to a church’s tax status, the “Establishment Clause” and its related “Free exercise” clause means there can be no imposition of state or federal laws that would require or limit religious practice.  Action by the President to circumscribe the rights of Muslim residents or visitors thus offends one of  the most honored principles in the American project.
  • We have the right to say and print what we wish, though where we exercise these rights can be altered by public safety concerns and limits on trespassing.  Most protests in cities and towns, for example, require notification of the police and permitting. In the workplace expressing political attitudes at work breaks no laws.  But those views can still get you fired.
  •  Freedom of association and a assembly is a basic right. And though an elected official retains the power to determine how and when, we have the right of “petition:” to meet with elected officials or their representatives. Town hall meetings or visits to the office of a member of Congress are not gifts from the member, but a constituent’s right.
  • In light of the President’s reprehensible description of the media as the “enemy of the people,” the guarantee of a free  press has added importance.  The press is the only form of business given constitutional protections, and the license from the Amendment is broad.  Media outlets are given leeway to “publish”  not just accurate information, but misinformation and hostile judgments of others. As it should be–and unlike the United Kingdom–libel is difficult to prove in American courts.  In practice, the greatest protections of speaking and writing go to artists and journalists portraying the work of public figures.

We actually honor the First Amendment by tolerating speech and published material at the margins, including–in many cases–communications that on other grounds are repellant and uninformed.  There is irony that our most cherished national value is frequently paired with words and actions most of us could not endorse.  But it’s enough to tolerate the authors of sometimes ill-considered ideas.   Protecting them protects us all.

The idea of a “bulwark against tyranny” is probably an overused phrase.  But it applies perfectly to the First Amendment, the core American canon that may be our best export.