A good day to celebrate freedom

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It’s the holiday that got away.

Today is the 219th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, a critical turning point in the history of this country and one that transformed this nation forever. Still, you won’t find any Bill of Rights greeting cards in local stores.

It’s not that Americans are short on patriotism. In fact, we celebrate Veterans Day, Constitution Day, Flag Day, Memorial Day, Washington’s Birthday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Independence Day.

Contrast that with Dec. 15. Has anyone ever wished you a Happy Bill of Rights Day? Have your children ever participated in a Bill of Rights pageant? Not likely. As a nation, we’ve completely lost sight of Bill of Rights Day.

There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm for it in 1941 when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed it a federal holiday. There was a huge celebration in New York City, with actress Helen Hayes reading the Bill of Rights and opera star Rise Stevens singing the National Anthem.  All of this was capped off with a gala event at the Waldorf Astoria.

FDR saw the celebration of the Bill of Rights as a weapon in America’s war against totalitarianism, describing these freedoms as a threat to the Nazis.

“To Hitler, the freedom of men to think as they please and speak as they please and worship as they please is, of all things imaginable, most hateful and most desperately to be feared,” Roosevelt said.

This nation does an outstanding job of celebrating Independence Day, but too often loses sight of how the Bill of Rights guarantees our collective freedom.

In fact, the first generation of Americans refused to ratify the Constitution until they received an assurance that there would be a set of guarantees — to be embodied in the Bill of Rights — that would protect them from a strong central government. Without the Bill of Rights, there would be no Constitution. Without the Constitution, this would be a dramatically different country.

The Bill of Rights consists of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution:

The First Amendment protects our freedom of speech, press, religion, and the rights of assembly and petition.

The Second Amendment protects our right to bear arms.

The Third Amendment is a bit dated, but bars the government from quartering troops in our homes.

The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable search and seizure.

The Fifth Amendment guarantees due process, protects us against self-incrimination and prevents the taking of our land without appropriate compensation.

The Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to legal counsel in criminal proceedings.

The Seventh Amendment gives us the right to trial by jury in civil matters.

The Eighth Amendment protects us from cruel and unusual punishment and excessive bail.

The Ninth Amendment says that even though some rights are spelled out in the Constitution, it doesn’t mean that other rights don’t also belong to the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that any powers not granted to the United States by the Constitution are reserved for the states or the public.

It’s a remarkable list that has held up well over more than two centuries. Together, these amendments preserve personal freedom and protect us against tyranny. We need to appreciate — and celebrate — these freedoms.

To that end, a coalition of educators, artists, authors, journalists and librarians have recently launched 1 for All, a national campaign to build understanding of the First Amendment and its role in a free society. (The First Amendment Center is one of the campaign’s founding supporters.)

The nonpartisan campaign (http://1forall.us) offers teachers lesson plans, provides grants to colleges so they can hold First Amendment festivals and symposia and encourages all Americans to learn more about these fundamental freedoms.

While some of us who have made our living in the news business are particularly partial to the First Amendment, it’s important that we honor and protect the entire Bill of Rights. Weakening any one amendment weakens them all.

Today is a good day to spend a few minutes talking to children about why the Bill of Rights sets this nation apart from all others. All Americans should be proud of this singular achievement.

FDR had it exactly right that day in 1941 when he said, “No date in the long history of freedom means more to liberty-loving men in all liberty-loving countries than the 15th day of December, 1791.

“On that day 150 years ago, a new nation, through an elected Congress, adopted a declaration of human rights which has influenced the thinking of all mankind from one end of the world to the other.”

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Ken Paulson is the president of the First Amendment Center and a founder of 1 for All.


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