One of the joys of continuing my education is
having getting to write a mini-article once a week for my fellow students and instructors. I’ve decided to share some of the better ones here. B.
Perhaps the most often quoted, and most poorly understood, Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the First Amendment. It states:
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.(“U.S. Constitution – First Amendment,” n.d.)
Broken down, this handful of words addresses multiple issues that were critical in the minds of the citizens of the then newly formed United States of America, and which remain critical to American citizens to this day.
First, it states that Congress cannot make laws establishing a national religion, or dictating how Americans exercise their religions. At the time when the Constitution was written, different states were dominated by different religious sects (“The religion clauses: Historical background,” n.d.), more than one of which had fled their country of origin in order to escape religious persecution (“Primer on the First Amendment & religious freedom,” n.d.). Some of the groups seeking religious freedom were Puritans. Others were Catholics. Still others were Quakers. But their common goal was to be able to engage in worship without fear of persecution by their government.
In spite of many statements by people over the years that the United States is a “Christian Nation,” the First Amendment established and maintains that there is no national religion of the United States. This separation between church and state was unheard of in the 1700s when state-sponsored religions and forced conversion were the norms (“First Amendment and religion,” n.d.).
Second, it prevents Congress from creating laws that forbid citizens from expressing their beliefs and opinions. The motivation behind this clause is not as obvious as the one above, but over the years several schools of thought have evolved. One in particular holds that unrestricted communication is essential to a functioning democracy, even if, and perhaps especially if, what is communicated is critical of the government (Scarinci, n.d.). Given recent political events, this school seems to have merit. I personally find it difficult to believe that our democracy would have survived had the previous Administrations been able to suppress public criticism at will. In fact, without the First Amendment, I might be prevented by law from making a statement criticizing a past Administration. Or of the current one.
What the freedom of speech clause does not do is prevent or protect citizens from the consequences of expressing views that may be unpopular, or contrary to established policies by their employers. This distinction is critical, especially now that every blog, post, or tweet can be scrutinized by anyone with the bandwidth. Contrary to the opinion expressed by John Daniel Davidson of the Federalist, companies are well within their rights to terminate, fire, or penalize employees if their expressions go against company policies or ethical standards (2020). Likewise, potential employers can take my blogs, posts, comments, or tweets into consideration before they decide whether or not to hire me. And I’m ok with that.
What the First Amendment does do is prevent the government from telling you what you can and cannot say.
Third, the First Amendment prevents Congress from creating laws that restrict the press. Because the press informs citizens about events and issues about the government, as well as about national and global affairs, freedom of the press is essential to maintain an informed citizenry, which, in turn, is necessary for a functioning democracy (Scarinci, n.d.). Without the ability to report on the government, even if what is reported is unfavorable, the press quickly becomes a vehicle for political propaganda from the State. Policies regarding the press in China and Russia spring to mind.
Fourth, the First Amendment preserves and protects “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” (“U.S. Constitution – First Amendment,” n.d.). This clause dovetails with the religion clause, among others, in that it forbids the government from preventing people from gathering peaceably to worship, among other things. In Elizabethan England, for example, Catholics were persecuted, their churches destroyed, their properties seized, they were forcibly deported, and, if they failed to leave, they were put to death (Armstrong, 2020). Two centuries later, when our nation was founded, such practices remained common, forcing Puritans, Quakers, and persons of other faiths to flee from Europe to the Americas.
The final clause, granting the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” is also crucial for a democracy as it protects the rights of the people to tell their government that is has wronged them (Scarinci, n.d.).
I could write an entire book on the differences between the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the attempted insurrection on January 6, 2021, and how they relate to the First Amendment and all of its clauses. Others undoubtedly will. For the most part, BLM protestors exercised their First Amendment rights as citizens by peacefully gathering, expressing their views about societal disparities that run along racial lines, and by telling their government at local, state, and national levels that change is needed. There were exceptions, of course, but citizens who rioted, committed acts of violence, or committed other crimes while claiming they were “protesting” are not protected by the First Amendment. Neither are those who took up arms and attacked the Capitol with the express and expressed desire to prevent the Electoral College from confirming President-Elect Biden, lynch then Vice President Pence, and murder Speaker of the House Pelosi (Tan et al., 2021).
And this is the crux of where people fail to understand what the First Amendment does and does not do. The First Amendment, at its core, is designed to protect people from religious persecution by the Government, and to maintain open communications between the Government and the People. Citizens are free to worship (or not) as they choose, and as long as they express themselves peacefully, they are protected.
These are the gifts the Founders gave to a young nation, and that we, as Americans, continue to receive to this day.
Armstrong, D. (2020, September 29). English persecution of Irish catholics: 1536-1829 & beyond. Patheos. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2020/09/english-persecution-of-irish-catholics-1536-1829-beyond.html
The Catholic threat. (n.d.). BBC. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zgw3wxs/revision/2
Davidson, J. D. (2020, June 16). If you don’t support Black Lives Matter, you’re fired. The Federalist. https://thefederalist.com/2020/06/11/if-you-dont-support-black-lives-matter-youre-fired/
First Amendment and religion. (n.d.). United States Courts. https://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/first-amendment-and-religion
Freedom of press: Overview. (n.d.). Library of Congress. https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/amdt1-3-1/ALDE_00000395/
Legal Information Institute. (n.d.). First Amendment. Cornell Law School. https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment
Primer on the First Amendment & religious freedom. (n.d.). Anti-Defamation League. https://www.adl.org/education/resources/backgrounders/the-first-amendment-and-religious-freedom
The religion clauses: Historical background. (n.d.). Library of Congress. https://constitution.congress.gov/browse/essay/amdt1-1-1/ALDE_00000390/
Scarinci, D. (n.d.). Freedom of speech – The First Amendment. Constitutional Law Reporter. https://constitutionallawreporter.com/amendment-01/freedom-speech/
Tan, S., Shin, Y., & Rindler, D. (2021, January 9). How one of America’s ugliest days unraveled inside and outside the Capitol. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2021/capitol-insurrection-visual-timeline/
U.S. Constitution – First Amendment. (n.d.). Library of Congress. https://constitution.congress.gov/constitution/amendment-1/