Happy anniversary to the amendment that keeps us free

Tuesday, December 15, 1998



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
Amendment.


Our blueprint for personal freedom and the hallmark of an open society, the
First Amendment protects freedom of religion, speech, press, petition and
assembly. 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.” 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
Amendment. Most people believe in the right to free speech, but debate
whether it should cover flag-burning, hardcore rap and heavy-metal lyrics,
tobacco advertising, hate speech, pornography, nude dancing, solicitation
and various forms of symbolic speech.


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. The struggle is not easy. In fact, courts wrestle daily with First
Amendment controversies and constitutional clashes, as evidenced by the
free-press versus fair-trial debate and the First Amendment liberty
principles versus the equality values of the Fourteenth Amendment
dilemma.