The First Amendment as a way of life

Friday, July 2, 2010

Suppose that the First Amendment were not just law but a way of life — what then?

Odd as that question may seem to lawyers and constitutionalists, it speaks to a fact all-too-often ignored: that is, the culture of freedom. While the law of the First Amendment is a limitation on government, the culture of the First Amendment is the freedom born of that limitation. Without the latter, the former is but a parchment principle devoid of any real-world meaning. Hence, what We the People do with the First Amendment determines our link to liberty.

“We live by symbols.” So said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the father of the modern First Amendment. And no symbol of freedom resonates truer with the American spirit than the one associated with the First Amendment. Its 45 words and five freedoms — religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition — are central to that experiment we call democracy. If the First Amendment is vital to our democracy, it is because it is central to our way of life.

Five principles
The culture of the First Amendment is rooted in five principles:

Toleration: The idea of a state religion is an anathema to us. Why?  Because we have come to accept, both as a principle and a practice, the idea that religious freedom is inextricably linked to religious tolerance. That idea is respected not only on the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday), but every day of every year as Americans of all different beliefs (and non-beliefs) co-exist peacefully. Think of that the next time you see someone praying in public, or others walking into a mosque, or yet others bearing ashes on their forehead, or think of it the next time you hear Matisyahu (the Hasidic Jewish reggae rapper) singing “Jerusalem.”

Truth: If we tolerate a spoonful of falsity, it is because we value the prospect of gaining a barrelful of truth. That, at any rate, is the logic behind the Enlightenment ideal that lubricates the wheels of our freedom of expression. Being democratic, we also hold to the view that no one can have a categorical claim on truth. What that means in practice is that our marketplace of ideas is often a messy one. But that give-and-take, made possible by the law of the First Amendment, is an American trademark. Remember that the next time you read an editorial in The New York Times or watch a talk show on Fox and think: What planet are these people from?

Creativity: It is a given: When people are free to experiment with their lives, they become more creative. Here, I refer to the creative spirit tapping more into our emotive selves than into our rational selves. Enlightenment is not the sole value of the First Amendment. Every time you hear a song that touches you, moves you, and changes your feelings about life, think of the freedom behind it; and think of those exercising that freedom and how their music has affected our culture. The same holds true for art, photography, literature, and poetry. Just read Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s 2007 poem “Pity the Nation” and you will readily understand why tyrants detest poets. Or recall that wondrous 1945 V-Day photo of a sailor and nurse kissing with romantic abandon at a Times Square parade.

Community: When we worship, speak and assemble, we often do so as a group, as a community of citizens. That idea of coming together finds dramatic and inspiring expression in the 1985 movie “The Witness” in which Amish workers came together to build a barn. This communal love, this humanistic assembling, this coming together for reasons religious, political, or what have you also represents another side of the ideal of the First Amendment.

Individuality: The culture of the First Amendment is one that respects the right of people to be different, and to march in the direction of their own star. It tolerates the dissenter, the outsider, the gadfly, and the guy who steps out of line for no apparent reason. Why? There are a number of explanations. The one that has always caught my attention is this one: We let people be themselves so that they may define their own destinies. And having done so, they may dream their own dreams or dance down the corridors of convention when everyone else strides stoically.

If you value the First Amendment, then value its culture. And if you value that culture, then become a part of it. Engage your freedom! Urge others to do likewise. Become a working part of that experiment called freedom. Practice random tolerance. Be open to truths you do not yet understand. Use your freedom to create more freedom. Join with others in worship and in protest, mindful of your ability to peacefully change your life and that of others. And let your lone flag fly, proudly — step forward when others step back, speak out when others are silent.

Remember, the First Amendment is more, far more, than what judges and lawyers say about the law. It is what an engaged citizenry does with it — how citizens utilize freedom to shape their world. The 1 for All campaign that launched yesterday is about just that. It is a way of energizing the First Amendment. And it is also a way for dreamers and pragmatists alike to make real what is thought to be unattainable by those who fear freedom.

Freedom on the corner
For 12 years John Wojnowski has protested outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington, D.C. I have passed him countless times. Some see him as a crackpot. Others see him as an offensive rogue. Still others respect the man and his message. But when I see him holding up his severe signs, I see something else. I see freedom come alive right there on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street.

Why do people do such things? I don’t really know. But I do know this: Whenever I pass him by I experience something of the same kind of feeling that comes upon me when I hear our national anthem played at a medals ceremony at the Olympics. And ah, yes, isn’t it a great feeling?

Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington Law School and a fellow at the First Amendment Center. His latest book, The Fundamental Holmes: A Free Speech Chronicle and Reader (Cambridge University Press, 2010), was just published this month. His next book, with Sam Chaltain, is We Must Not be Afraid to be Free: Stories about Free Speech in America (Oxford University Press, January 2011).