Of late, I've had the strong feeling that the majority of my fellow citizens are ignorant as hell, and what's worse, they have no clue. People bitch and moan on cue when informed by "The Media," or any organization that presents itself as distributing newsworthy facts and information (whether it does so or not), that someone, somewhere, is trampling their "rights;" however, more of them can name at least four characters on The Simpsons than they can at least four of the rights guaranteed them by the First Amendment, according to a recent study. So my question is, how the hell would they know? Some of them actually thought that the right to own a pet was in the first amendment.
My answer? Nobody gives a damn about the Constitution anymore. Therefore, concomitantly, and stuff, I will eddikate my fellow Americans, none of whom read this blog. Periodically, I'll post an amendment and provide commentary and interpretation. Even if nobody reads it, I'll at least feel better.
Today, inspired by recent news, I'll talk about the actual first amendment. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads thus:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
- source: The Constitution of the United States, as posted on the National Archives website. The First Amendment is one of ten included in the Bill of Rights, ratified December 15, 1791.
What it means: There are five freedoms guaranteed by this amendment. I'll discuss them in detail below, but first, a word about Congressional jurisdiction. Congress is the highest ranking legislative body in the United States. No individual state can directly countermand any laws passed by Congress. Anything that congress leaves out is up to the states (that's in the tenth amendment), but specific constitutional guarantees cannot be superseded by any authority - up to, and including, Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court.
Freedom 1: Nobody can impede your free exercise of religion. This has been a source of many controversies in the past, not just in separation of church and state, but also in just what constitutes the free exercise of religion. Some years back, a man challenged his murder conviction by stating that he was a Satanist, and that he was conducting a ritual calling for human sacrifice. Convicting him for murder, he claimed, violated the "free exercise" clause. This was declared bunk (as it should be): human sacrifice violates the rights of the sacrificed (see the ninth amendment and the Declaration of Independence).
The separation of Church and State has been thorny as well. Many religious people have challenged this doctrine as not guaranteed by the Constitution. It is a part of the evangelical tradition to spread the word to as many as possible by whatever means necessary. In fact, the separation is mandated by the wording of the amendment. If a governmentally supported entity (including schools, courthouses, etc.) were to display a religious text (a monument or plaque of the Ten Commandments, for example), can be logically presumed to be promoting a certain religion, or "establishing" it. Again, if Congress cannot legislate religion, neither can states or local governments. Such displays also counter the "free exercise" clause, since the freedom to practice religion also implies a freedom to not practice religion.
Freedom 2: Nobody can abridge your freedom of speech. This is a tricky phrase, because constituting speech is a difficult task. Mutes cannot speak; they must write. Hanging someone in effigy can be constituted as speech: symbolic actions often hold deeper rhetorical meanings than verbalized speech. The trick to free speech jurisprudence, to paraphrase Stanley Fish, is to draw the lines between speech, expression, and action. A legislative body that starts by saying "Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of action" defeats itself from the start, for reasons anyone can see.
Freedom 3: The government cannot tell the press what to say. The PRESS. Newspapers can print whatever they want, so long as it's true (to knowingly print falsehoods about someone interferes with his implied ninth amendment right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness).
Freedom 4: People can gather peacefully whensoever they choose. This is among the most frequently - and unknowingly - trampled rights in the United States. Nobody can require you to have a "Permit" to protest peacefully. If you choose to march all over town, quietly, without destroying property or causing bodily harm to others, no government agency can prohibit this. The mass arrests of protestors at the Republican National Convention in 2004 violated this: the protesters were quiet, and were not interfering with delegates' comings and goings.
Freedom 5: People can complain to and about the government about whatever they want. People can ask the government to address their complaints. Nobody can interfere with this. Taken in the context of the abovementioned freedom, no governmental agency can force protestors to apply for a protest permit. Application for a permit to protest (asking for redress of grievances) implies that permission can be denied, which it cannot.