By Megan Mosher
There are three documents in the United States of America which can be collectively taken to define the utter existence of this nation: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Through the Declaration, the founding fathers severed the ties with Great Britain. Through the Constitution, they established a radical form of government based almost entirely in classical thought. But it was through the Bill of Rights that the founding fathers outlined specific rights of the people and denied the government the power to abridge them.
Of the 10 amendments which make up the Bill of Rights, it is the First Amendment which enumerates the most basic and precious rights of the people. The most praised of the amendments, it has been long held in reverence by American society.
Measuring only 45 simple words, it covers a broad range of freedoms prohibiting the federal government from restricting speech, press, religion and from denying the right to assembly and a petition for redress of grievances. Yet, despite its clear cut language and no-nonsense attitude, it is also one of the most controversial and debated amendments to the Constitution.
In the two centuries following its ratification, the First Amendment has been debated constantly both within the courts and without. Through the ages, from the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early 1800s to the Red Scare and McCarthyism of the 1950s, the First Amendment has changed in meaning. And each time, a little of the prestige and grandeur of the simple text is stripped away.
For though people generally agree that the freedom of speech is essential to a democratic republic such as the U.S., many would disagree on what people should be free to say. Disagreeing with the government should be protected, but seditious or treasonous statements should not. Practicing your religion should be okay, but high school valedictorians should not be allowed to incorporate a prayer into their speech. The newspapers should print what they choose, but the courts should step in and prevent the printing of sensitive material. It is these questions and others which have plagued the history of these simple words, “Congress shall make no law…”
Many Americans today have even ceased to care, as a 2009 study showed that only 4 percent of U.S. citizens can name all five of the freedoms protected under the First Amendment and 39 percent of U.S. citizens can not name any. In fact, the First Amendment Center reported that 19 percent of Americans believe that the First Amendment goes too far in guaranteeing individual rights to the citizens of this country.
This is a sad view of the First Amendment, which is an invaluable part of American history. Without the freedoms of speech, press, religion, petition and assembly, none of the great achievements this country has seen could ever have been made. Without this Amendment, we might never have heard of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Rosa Parks. The suffrage movement of the 20s and the civil rights movement of the 60s would have been impossible were it not for these basic freedoms.
It might be a stretch, but this writer would venture to say that without the First Amendment this country would not be where it is today. It is more important than ever, in the face of changing court precedence, that American’s be aware of their First Amendment rights. This is our heritage of freedom which the founding fathers fought for, and which we must continue to fight for in our own generation.
Because, as Ronald Reagan wisely said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This article was written in conjunction with “In Pursuit of the First Amendment,” an awareness campaign sponsored by the Southeastern Press Club. This student run campaign is focused on raising awareness of the First Amendment and the issues surrounding it. The author is a three-year member of the Press Club and a senior journalism student at Southeastern Louisiana University.