Hail to the amendment that keeps us free

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

On Dec. 15, 1791, our Founding Fathers ratified the Bill of Rights, the first
10 amendments to the United States Constitution, to protect citizens from the
power of the federal government.

When the Constitution was signed Sept. 17, 1787, it did not contain the
essential freedoms outlined in the Bill of Rights, because many of the Framers
viewed their inclusion as unnecessary.

However, after vigorous debate and a fair amount of political posturing, the
Bill of Rights was adopted. The first freedoms guaranteed in this historic
document were articulated in the 45 words we have come to know as the First

Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the
First Amendment protects freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and
petition. Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted,
the government might establish a national religion, protesters could be
silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not
mobilize and march for social change.

The First Amendment ensures that, as Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson
said in 1943, “if there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,
it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in
politics, nationalism, religion, or force citizens to confess by word or act
their faith therein” (West
Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette

The First Amendment, as Justice William Brennan wrote in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, provides that “debate on public issues … [should be] …
uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

However, Americans often dispute the application of the First Amendment. Most
people believe in the right to free speech, but debate whether it should cover
flag-burning, hard-core rap or heavy-metal lyrics, tobacco advertising, hate
speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation and various forms of symbolic

Most people, at some level, recognize the necessity of religious liberty and
toleration, but some balk when a religious tenet of a minority religion
conflicts with a generally applicable law or with their own religious faith.
Many Americans see the need to separate the state from the church to some
extent, but decry the banning of school-sponsored prayer from public schools and
the removal of the Ten Commandments from public buildings.

Such is the price of freedom of speech and religion in a tolerant, open
society. Difficulties are many. In fact, courts wrestle daily with First
Amendment controversies and constitutional clashes, as evidenced by the
free-press vs. fair-trial debate and the dilemma that pits First Amendment
liberty principles against the equal-protection values of the 14th

But as contentious as First Amendment questions often are, we would be
nowhere — silenced and shackled — without the five freedoms it enshrines.

So happy birthday, First Amendment. And many more — forever.

Note: The First Amendment Center celebrates its 18th anniversary today, as