The Founders had no sooner finished their work on the Constitution when they realized that while they had created a good working framework for a government, they hadn't done quite enough to clearly define the rights of the citizens under that government. They'd had the experience of living under a monarch with unlimited powers, and wanted to make sure that the rights of the citizens of the newly united states were protected. And so it was that they drafted and ensured ratification of the first ten amendments to the brand-new Constitution.
I could write multiple posts on each of the first ten amendments and, indeed multiple posts about each one of those amendments. To simplify things, let's take the Bill of Rights one amendment at a time, starting today with the First Amendment, which reads ...
"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."
The First Amendment codifies most of the fundamental rights we value as American citizens: the rights of free worship, free speech, a free press, and free assembly. Whole libraries of commentary and analysis have been written about each of these rights, and courts at every level have generated mountains of rulings that either uphold or limit each of them. My discussion in the next few paragraphs will represent only the very most superficial look at each one ... but a discussion that I hope will get us all thinking not just about our rights, but our responsibilities as citizens.
Consider the first part of the amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Founders lived in an era when memories of religious oppression and wars were fresh and troubling. The mother country had an established religion (the Church of England), of which the King was the head, and which everyone was expected to observe. The Founders wanted to ensure that citizens of the new country would be free to worship according to the dictates of their conscience, and I don't think it's an accident that freedom of religion, and from government coercion in matters of the spirit, is the very first freedom documented in the very first amendment. Consider that when you listen to far-right presidential wannabes thunder about their religious beliefs and their desire to impose them on you. Oh, and also remember that Article VI of the Constitution clearly states that “…no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The Founders knew the negative power of extreme religious belief, and wanted to make sure that we could worship as we saw fit, but be protected from those who would enforce a particular belief.
The next right guaranteed in the First Amendment is the freedom of speech. This means, generally speaking, that we can say what we want, without fear of limitation or censure by agents of the government. In practice, though, we accept practical limits on this freedom: it's illegal, of course, to incite riots, to yell "fire!" in a crowded theater, and to engage in what we loosely call "hate speech." Cases dealing with abridgement of the freedom of speech are decided in the courts every year, most recently in the case before the Supreme Court which will decide the power of the Federal Communications Commission to limit offensive language on the airwaves. What are the appropriate limits on free speech? I don't know. But what I do know is this: as I've often written about in this space, the Constitution grants us freedom of speech ... not freedom of smart. As a very smart person once said, "What this country needs is more free speech worth listening to."
Freedom of the press comes right after freedom of speech in the First Amendment, and most of the same comments I made in the previous paragraph also apply. The Founders knew that a strong and independent press was important to ensuring an informed population. They also knew that a free press would not always be popular. My personal opinion is that the media (expanding the concept of the press to cover more than print) is often irresponsible and overly in love with itself ... but that's the price we pay for being able to read (and hear) things with which we may not agree.
The right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances is the next freedom listed in the First Amendment, and we see the practical effects of it every day. Consider the "Occupy _____" movement, which is attempting - in its own disorganized and clumsy way - to draw attention to social and economic problems. Does the right peaceably to assemble include the right to disrupt traffic, to block entry to government and commercial buildings? Reasonable people (if you can find any nowadays) disagree. I think that the Occupy Whatever movement has an important message to deliver ... but that it needs focus, concepts of practical application, and a willingness to listen to (if not accept) the views of others.
The fundamental problem with the First Amendment is that it guarantees rights, but does not demand equivalent responsibilities. We have freedom of speech, but those who demand that freedom often want to deny it to those with whom they disagree - consider the despicable practice of noisily heckling or shouting down speakers. We have freedom of the press, but it means that we also have to accept that we may be offended by much of what we read ... that much of what's free to be printed may be (in our personal opinions) the most useless or dangerous drivel. We have freedom of peaceful assembly, but when does your freedom to assemble trump my freedom to go where I wish without interference?
The rights guaranteed under the First Amendment are some of the most valuable and fundamental that we enjoy as citizens of this great nation. They need to be protected, exercised with due regard for the rights of others, and considered in the context of the responsibilities they call forth.
Unfortunately, it's easier to demand rights than to behave responsibly. We'll talk more about that when we turn tomorrow to a discussion of the Second Amendment.
Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.