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.
Indulge us, if you will, as we discuss something near and dear to all Americans: The 45 words listed above, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
It is the right that allows us to bring you the news every day without worrying about federal storm troopers camping out in our Green Street lobby.
There’s a reason our Founding Fathers put it first in the Bill of Rights, and why it remains the most quoted, most tested and most enduring of all democratic ideals.
Perhaps the most important part of the First Amendment are its first five words: “Congress shall make no law.” That means that the federal government will not interfere with our right to free expression, faith or assembly, provided our words or actions don’t cause danger or physical harm.
We may take this for granted today, but keep in mind that in 1787 when the Constitution was adopted, such a concept was still rather radical. Governments then were mostly ruled by monarchs who limited what their subjects could say and publish.
Yet it also applies in modern times. Try criticizing the leaders of Cuba, China or Venezuela and your ability to breathe free air afterward is not guaranteed.
A couple of unrelated incidents in the news last week have put the First Amendment under the microscope.
First there was case of radio talk-show host Laura Schlessinger, aka “Dr. Laura.” She came under withering criticism for her repeated use of the “n-word” racial epithet in a discussion with a caller on her show. Sponsors threatened to pull their support of her program and critics weighed in on her lack of sensitivity.
This month, Dr. Laura announced on CNN’s “Larry King Show” that she would end her national broadcast and work to regain her “First Amendment rights.”
Say what? As many have pointed out, no one infringed upon her “First Amendment rights.” In fact, those 45 words are what allowed her to air her views without someone pulling the plug on her to begin with.
What Schlessinger and others fail to grasp is that the same First Amendment that allows her to speak her mind also protects those who criticize her and sponsors who no longer wish to associate with her. They enjoy the same rights. And storm troopers are nowhere to be seen.
She should heed what the First Amendment doesn’t do: Protect us from the consequences of our expression. You can say or write what you want without government interference, but individuals and businesses may make your life uncomfortable.
And as a long list of unthinking motormouths — The Dixie Chicks, Don Imus, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, Trent Lott and untold others — have discovered, the wrong untimely comments could send us into unemployment or put a crimp in our earnings.
This reminds us that with freedom comes responsibility. Just because we have the right to say anything we want doesn’t mean it’s the wise thing to say.
That brings us to the controversy over the proposed mosque at the World Trade Center site in New York City. Reaction to such a plan has ranged from defensive to strongly opposed, many feeling such a landmark at Ground Zero is desecration of hallowed ground.
Most agree that the group has the legal right to build a mosque wherever it pleases. The argument is over whether it should be built there.
It is a sensitive issue, especially to those who lost relatives in the 9/11 attack and for whom the wounds remain fresh from that fall day nine years ago. The mosque decision has been likened by some to the Japanese offering a shrine at Pearl Harbor or the Germans building a monument at a Holocaust death camp.
President Barack Obama waded in carefully with noncommittal support, saying there is no legal reason to block the mosque but that he would not comment on the wisdom of such a move (way to take a stand, Mr. President).
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was equally wishy-washy, urging a probe to discover whose funding was backing both the mosque and opposition to it.
Who cares? If either side is supported by financial backers, it’s their money and their business now to spend it. Once again, the First Amendment protects all concerned. Muslims have a right to express their faith and defend the decision. Those who oppose it can speak their minds. No one will go to jail as long as the discussion sticks to words, not sticks and stones.
As with Schlessinger’s case, the mosque example points out that there are no absolutes in freedom of expression. Yes, the Islamic group can practice its faith, but if it does so in such a revered public venue, it will face angry opposition.
Hence the lesson: Practice your freedoms freely, but choose carefully. Know that the First Amendment protects you only from Uncle Sam’s dungeons, not from the wrath of others. The dynamic tension between rights and responsibilities is what keeps our society in balance.
It’s the same lesson we teach our children: You reap what you sow. Our nation’s founders, in their infinite brilliance, knew well that all the laws, articles and amendments their inked quills could produce would not create a truly free society if those within it didn’t practice common sense.
Said Schlessinger to King: “I want to be able to say what’s on my mind and in my heart and what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry.”
Well, good luck with that. Perhaps she can find a fantasyland where we all can say what we want surrounded by a protective bubble.
If such a place exists, she’s welcome to it. We like it better in the good ol’ USA, as messy and noisy as it may be, for that’s what true freedom sounds like.
—The Gainesville Times