Part of the Bill of Rights of The U.S. Constitution, the First Amendment leads our Bill of Rights with the first of the Rights our Founders specifically noted as being unalienable, unable to ever be taken. Here, The Founding Project guest writer, Eric Buss, outlines the basics of this important amendment and list of untouchable Rights which work together to protect freedom.
The 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution
“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 Constitution of the United States of America, Bill of Rights
Freedom of Religion
Religion is a very personal choice and matter from which people are able to draw a world view, principles, values and morals. Thus, it is no surprise that its preservation is the first of the first among many restrictions on the Federal Government. The purpose is to ensure the right of individual worship, the individual right to conscience and individual’s beliefs according to their religion’s or their personal precepts.
Congress can never place itself as a mediator between man and his relationship with God, the Creator or the natural order (for those who believe there is no deity at all). The first of the Ten Commandments to Congress (Bill of Rights) subordinates our elected representatives and their laws to a higher authority than their own personal interests, even if that higher authority is contained in The People. Congress cannot compel people to a specific religion, orthodoxy, faith or belief system nor can they place limitations on how the people exercise their beliefs. There can never be an established state religion nor can there be restrictions placed on religion.
Freedom of Speech
If a society is truly to remain free, unpopular opinions must be acknowledged and allowed. Expressing dissent against government, in particular, is at the root of our heritage. In addition to righteous indignation, outrage and repudiation of public policies, there must also be made room for repugnant philosophies, damnable heresies and horrid deceptions.
That is, Americans are free to express themselves as they so choose with exceptions only for that which harms the rights or safety of others. With that freedom may come words we may not want to hear, but freedom protects every person’s right to speak words we do or do not wish to hear.
If Congress were invited to define the above, they might determine repudiation of public policies to be a damnable heresy. The founding fathers’ own words might even be deemed repugnant philosophy. Or, interpreting the Constitution according to its expressed intent might be construed as obscene deception. If Congress or any trusted or mistrusted body of people were tasked with interpreting lies and truth, what might the result be?
Responsibilities of Free Speech
That is where the education our Founders so adamantly supported comes into play. With freedom of speech comes the civic duty of each and every citizen to be educated or informed and to inform others. It is the duty of citizens to determine for themselves what is truth and fiction. A free press (media) also bears responsibility with this.
Exposing violations of public trust, verifying facts and defying official narratives with alternative theories lies at the heart of necessity in maintaining a free (albeit skeptical) electorate. To be sure, there are individuals who will, through ignorance or personal agenda or flawed logic, misinform the people.
But, Americans have a civic duty to protect the Right of Free Speech AND to defend truth by being educated and well-read to discern truth from fiction. The burden of Free Speech is a gift that comes with responsibility. However, should the prophets of the bible or our Founders live in modern America, they would be free to speak out as our Creator intended without legal consequence.
Freedom of the Press
At the time the First Amendment was written, the printing press was the swiftest means to disseminate information, publish opinions and announce events or gatherings. It was used to mass produce bibles, as well as brothel flyers. The printing press made distribution of pamphlets, circulars and newspapers to large audiences possible. It facilitated education and enlightenment. The written word gave confirmation of broader unrest and even provoked people to express their outrage openly. Printed word provided an outlet to confirm what resentment lay beneath the surface of public sentiment. And, it allowed challenges to the popular narrative to be put in the hands of common people and it allowed questions.
While the same case noted above under Freedom of Speech can be applied to the press, speech is contemporary. It lingers only in memory, unless recorded. The printed word can endure a thousand years. It was those printed words that inspired the founding generation to take up the cause of freedom. Words in print rallied the colonies to throw off the shackles of Britain. It was printed words in the Constitution, itself, that declared the necessity to safeguard their preservation for posterity.
And, as with Freedom of Speech, while Americans are free to express themselves, media is also free to print what it deems necessary and readers have a duty to discern truth from fiction. Media with a penchant to disperse flawed information can be quickly abandoned by readers, sending the source out of business.
Freedom of Assembly
There is strength in numbers. Coming together for common cause, for public discussion or to hear a speaker who echoes our own sentiments is a tradition as old as our union. Had the founders not secretly gathered for the Continental Congress, an act of conspiracy and treason in its own time, there may well have never been a Revolution.
Given our status as masters of our own government, we are free and protected to gather peacefully to discuss how best to bring OUR government into submission to the will of the people. We are allowed to protest. The people are allowed to stand in front of Congressional Representatives and stare them down collectively. We are entitled to hold vigils, prayer meetings and congregate at church. And, we can demonstrate against our government and it must protect us in doing so. That is the power and right we are guaranteed, in many cases, to the dismay of the governing body who must consider changing policy in response to overwhelming public sentiment.
Redress of Grievances
Anyone who has read the Declaration of Independence, has likely also read the extensive list of grievances (27 to be precise) which compelled the colonies to separate from England’s king. Petitions are in circulation every day in America. People take up a particular cause, gather signatures and submit them to city, state or national lawmakers. This is a common course of proposing new laws or for having laws rescinded.
However, if the corruption in government becomes so intolerable as to be an affront to the people, the people have the right to lay accusations at the feet of government and demand the corruption be resolved. As public servants, duly elected and employed by the people, they are obligated to hear the complaints lodged against them.
Redress and Unity
Consider this provision in the First Amendment to be a means of offering terms to government. It is for this reason that Americans have often united and found unity and numbers works in their favor. While any and all Americans have the right to air their grievances with our government, our Founders knew the advantage of unity. A united people, resolved to demand their collective complaints be addressed, has far more authority than smaller groups of divided citizens.
The Founders’ ability to exercise Free Speech, distribute information via the Press, Assemble to discuss issues brought about unity. Then, they had the numbers to air their 27 grievances to the King of England. As much as the King of England tried to divide the colonies and address them individually, or in smaller and controllable groups, the Founders found ways to unite all colonies in the pursuit of freedom. They used every aspect of the First Amendment.
The Impact of the First Amendment
Remember that the Bill of Rights was a guaranteed addition to The Constitution of the United States. Without the Bill of Rights, the Constitution would not have been ratified by the States which ultimately united to form our Republic. States wanted the promise of basic Rights to be noted as being unalienable…guaranteed, assured…before they would allow a federal style government or a government with a central entity with more power than the original Articles of Confederation allowed. These protected Rights would be their insurance policy should their new government ever step beyond its bounds and threaten freedom.
How important is the First Amendment to the United States Constitution?
Our Founders were a free people guided by moral conviction, rooted in a Higher Authority, the divine providence to which the Declaration signers distinctly noted and to whom they pledged their lives, fortune and sacred honor. When they were forced to surrender greater and greater quantities of money, goods or services to improve the king’s status, they acknowledged that government was not operating in any restrained capacity. They began to discuss it individually and in small groups. Soon, people begin to speak to audiences in parks, meeting halls and even at churches about the conditions they were collectively subjected to at the hands of the government. Our Founders exercised every aspect of the First Amendment to begin the fight for the freedom for which America is known.
Today and the First Amendment…Where do we see the First Amendment now?
Activist entities, lobbying efforts, nonprofit organizations and also social media (a form of the Press and also Assembly) groups and pages form to bring awareness of issues. This congeals into a movement intent on initiating change. Lists of specific accusations and perceived injuries are compiled. Representatives, sympathetic to a cause, author legislation to address the topics of the complaints (grievances).
Should all of these steps fail to resolve legitimate Constitutional violations, should the legislative body act with indifference or blatant disregard for the will of the people, demonstrations or protests will likely ensue. This is the point when the people are offering a last chance to their government to set things right.
First Amendment or Step 2?
The response of the government is key to how things proceed. If the government hears and responds adequately to the demands of the people, the intent of the 1st Amendment has succeeded in its purpose. Should the government choose to respond with retaliation or try to subdue the people, tyranny has reared its ugly head and we then must consider our Founders’ actions, which were to proceed to step 2(nd Amendment).
Every part of the First Amendment is crucial to the freedom our Founders fought for and garnered for America. As citizens, we have a civic duty to protect each and every provision. Understanding how the First Amendment impacts our lives now and the intent of its every aspect is an important part of preserving freedom.
To learn more about The Bill of Rights and the originally proposed version, see The Founding Project’s article, The Originally Proposed Bill of Rights: https://thefoundingproject.com/originally-proposed-bill-rights/
Sources: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/billofrightsintro.html. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2018/04/06/what-first-amendment-protects-and-what-doesnt/469920002/. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Bill-of-Rights-United-States-Constitution. https://today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2016/04/12/bill-rights