Happy 208th anniversary to the amendment that keeps us free

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

On Dec. 15, 1791, the state of Virginia ratified the Bill of Rights, the
first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution. Virginia’s action gave the Bill of Rights the majority of ratifying states required 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, petition and

Without the First Amendment, religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government, and citizens could not mobilize for social change.

The First Amendment ensures that “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,” as Justice Robert Jackson wrote in the 1943 case West Virginia v. Barnette.

And as Justice William Brennan wrote in New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, the First
Amendment provides that “debate on public issues … [should be] …
uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”

However, Americans vigorously dispute the application of the First

Most people believe in the right to free speech, but debate
whether it should cover flag-burning, hard-core rap and heavy-metal lyrics,
tobacco advertising, hate speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation
and various forms of symbolic speech. Many would agree to limiting some forms of free expression, as seen in the First Amendment Center’s State of the First Amendment: 1999 report.

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.

Further, courts wrestle daily with First
Amendment controversies and constitutional clashes, as evidenced by the
free-press vs. fair-trial debate and the dilemma of First Amendment liberty
principles vs. the equality values of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Such difficulties are the price of freedom of speech and religion in a tolerant, open
society. The struggle is not easy. But it continues, as it must.

So, happy birthday to the First Amendment — and many happy returns of the day.