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.”
At the time of our nation’s inception, the Founders believed that the open, free exchange of ideas was necessary for the survival of a representative democracy. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” To protect this principle, the Founders established the freedoms of speech and the press in the First Amendment. In recalling their wisdom, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The Framers knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.”
The First Amendment has come to symbolize the right of “a single minority of one” to express views that differ from those of the popular majority in the areas of speech, religion and expression. As a federal judge recognized, history has shown us that “pleasing speech is not the kind that needs protection.” According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the First Amendment has become the fortress for protecting the “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” discussion of controversial and often unpopular issues in public places.
The First Amendment also includes the right to freely express one’s religion. It does so by guaranteeing every person the right to express any religious belief, or none at all, while at the same time prohibiting the government from favoring any particular religion over another. The government cannot dictate how we should act or what we should believe, especially when it comes to religion.
The First Amendment Today
The freedom to speak your mind. To worship. To pray without interference. To protest in peace. These rights are still protected by the First Amendment. The freedom to speak one’s mind on issues of the day, exercise religious beliefs, remain educated through a free press, associate with others and petition the government when you have been wronged is just as important today as it was in 1791. If our First Amendment protections are to remain intact, however, it will require courageous individuals who are willing to take a stand in defense of them.
There is much to defend today. Despite the clear protections found in the First Amendment, the freedoms described therein are under constant assault, from school officials stripping students of their right to express their faith and local governments and police forbidding citizens from expressing unpopular views in public to members of the press being threatened with jail time for reporting on important government programs.
For instance, in September 2007, University of Florida student Andrew Meyer was brutally dealt with by police for exercising his First Amendment rights at a forum featuring Senator John Kerry. Meyer was tasered and then arrested by police when he refused to leave the microphone after his allotted time to ask his question—a question that Kerry stated he was prepared to answer.
On July 4, 2004, Nicole and Jeffery Rank of Corpus Christi, Texas, were handcuffed and removed from a rally at the West Virginia state capitol, where President Bush was giving a speech, for refusing to cover their T-shirts which bore anti-Bush slogans. They were later released without charge—unsurprising given that their only “crime” had been to express themselves—and the federal government later settled a lawsuit the Ranks initiated for $80,000. What the case revealed is that the U.S. Secret Service has a manual for dealing with such dissenters, including removing those who want to act on their free speech rights from such events.
In Washington, D.C., a woman who opposed China’s practice of religious oppression was arrested for publicly protesting during an official government ceremony for Chinese President Hu Jintao. Also in our nation’s capital, a congressman’s wife was removed by police from President Bush’s 2006 State of the Union Address because her shirt proclaimed the message, “Support the Troops—Defending Our Freedom.”
Infringements on First Amendment rights have reached such extremes that government officials are even attempting to dictate what we can and cannot wear. Various cities, for example, have begun cracking down on the so-called “baggy pants” trousers worn below the underwear. The style, which developed in prisons because inmates were not provided with belts, has become fashionable in certain communities. Some local officials have adopted a harsh stance on this form of expression. In Delcambre, Louisiana, “offenders” face a $500 fine or six-month jail sentence for wearing their pants in this style. An ordinance in Mansfield, a town of 5,496 near Shreveport, subjects offenders to a fine (as much as $150 plus court costs) or jail time (up to 15 days). Both Florida and Arkansas have successfully passed statewide school dress codes that do not allow students to wear saggy pants on campus.
The press, which is essential to the preservation of liberty, has also come under attack from the government. One of the principles that ensures a free press is that journalists are not required to reveal their sources. This is one way government whistleblowers can feel free to come forward and reveal information that is of public importance, such as governmental corruption and abuse, without fearing exposure. If journalists were required to reveal their sources, scandals involving government corruption and wrongdoing such as Watergate might never be brought to the attention of the media and, thus, the American people.
Despite the importance of this journalistic safeguard, the freedom of the press has come under attack in recent years. During the federal government’s investigations into steroid abuse and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), a service business for blood and urine analysis and food supplements, two journalists from the San Francisco Chronicle were threatened with prison time—up to 18 months, the length of the grand jury investigation—for refusing to reveal their sources. The sentence would have been longer than the combined sentences for all those convicted in the BALCO case. Although the issue was eventually settled when the whistleblower came forward, the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice was so eager to attack the fundamental right of the press—the prohibition on journalists being forced to name sources—shows how the most basic rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights are being undermined.
Former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales threatened the press for reporting information about the war on terror that the government deemed “classified.” Gonzales insisted that the government had the authority to prosecute and, thus, intimidate journalists who published alleged classified information, implying that the freedom of the press was not quite as free as Americans previously may have thought. When asked whether he was open to the possibility that the New York Times should be prosecuted for its disclosures in December 2005 concerning a National Security Agency surveillance program, Gonzales said his department was trying to determine “the appropriate course of action in that particular case.”
Battles are continually being fought across America to protect our First Amendment rights. However, Americans should not be silenced by the government for lawfully exercising their First Amendment freedoms.