The Bill of Rights: 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.
Such simple words, but perhaps the most misunderstood amendment next to the Second Amendment. Let’s break it down into smaller pieces:
Congress shall make no law respecting
Plain English. Congress is prohibited from making laws concerning the subjects following in the amendment. This does not mean that the States are prohibited from doing so, but in recent times, the Supreme Court has been recognizing that the US Constitution applies to the States as well as Congress when in reality, it doesn’t. If it were true that the Constitution applied to the States, then there would be no need for the individual constitutions of the several states. Most of the states have guarantees of individual rights enshrined within their own constitutions.
an establishment of religion
Christians hate hearing this, but this nation is not a Christian nation, and it was not founded on Christian principles. I defy anyone to show me where, in the Bible, it refers to the legislative, executive and judicial branches and how they should work.
The whole purpose of the establishment clause was to prevent a state religion from being declared. When the colonies were the property of the Crown, the Anglican religion was the established religion of England, meaning the Church of England was the officially recognized religion of the state.
Several of the individual states had their own official religions, but the First Amendment prohibits the Federal government from recognizing one religion over another. Most were the Church of England, but there were also Quakers, Methodists, Presbyterians among the citizens of the United States.
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
In short, everyone is allowed to worship as they like. This includes fringe religions like paganism, satanism, and wicca. They may be a little weird, but whatever. It’s their right, as long as no laws are broken.
or abridging the freedom of speech
The purpose behind this part was to prevent Congress from making laws to prevent people from being able to speak out against the government, or make laws that punish people for speaking out. However, that does not prevent the government from making claims that anyone who speaks out against the government is an anti-Federalist, violent right wing extremist, a claim made by both DHS and the Combating Terrorism Center.
The Freedom of Speech does have certain, common sense limitations. People like to say the Supreme Court said that an individual cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater. That’s not what they said. In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. writing for the majority in Schenk v. United States, said: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre (sic) and causing a panic.”
“The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.”
However, the amendment specifically says Congress shall make NO law abridging the Freedom of Speech. I understand restrictions where the public safety is concerned, but no means no. I am in disagreement with the Supreme Court on this one. This includes so called “hate speech”. “Hate” speech is speech that needs some of the greatest protection. Once one group’s right to free speech is squashed, it becomes easier to squash the next group, until free speech is a thing of the past. There are people who will always be offended by something.
or of the press
During John Adams presidency, he and the Congress did abridge the First Amendment with the Alien & Sedition Acts. While tensions with France were high at the time (due to the XYZ Affair), the Acts were aimed at the Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, and Republican newspapers. Under these laws, 25 men, mostly Republican newspaper editors were imprisoned and fined, forcing the newspapers to shut down. These acts also cost Adams the presidency in 1800. While The Naturalization Act was repealed in 1802, the Alien Act and the Sedition Act were allowed to expire. The Alien Enemies Act was ignored and not enforced because war with France never materialized. However, this act was used in 1941 to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War. It is still the law to this day. (Quick side note; Thomas Jefferson belonged to the Democrat-Republican Party. Any use of Republican or Democrat with regards to Jefferson’s time are interchangeable.)
The Alien & Sedition Acts were never tested in the Supreme Court, so the Constitutionality of these Acts is still unknown.
But, in days past, the press was a government watchdog. It seems like the watchdog has become a lapdog in recent years. Look at how reporters turned on Bob Woodward when he criticized the current administration. There have been reports of the White House paying CNN to run certain stories. Freedom of the Press, or State run media?
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble
The people can assemble for any reason; to protest the government, a government policy, or to organize for any kind of action, as long as it is a peaceful. This does not give the people the right to destroy others property, riot, murder rape, or anything else the Occupy Wall Streeters tend to do.
and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
We have the right to petition our government, but they seem to have stopped listening. The Obama administration has taken it to absurd levels by creating a white house petition website. Some of the petitions range from the funny and disturbingly absurd (Allow Americans to vote “yes”/”no” on White Genocide; Guarantee children in public preschool and kindergarten the inalienable right to unstructured play) to the eventual and inevitable requests from each state for permission to secede from the Union.
I don’t think actual petitions was what the Founders actually intended, but we see the government, every day, every year become more and more isolated from the people. Our representatives were supposed to be the ones closest to the people, aware of what the people wanted, but they too, are becoming increasingly isolated. Still, we have the right to direct our government. We have the right to complain to them about things that aren’t working, and call our Congressperson and tell them how we think they should vote.
That in itself, separates this nation from so many others.