Your Back Pocket Reminder to the U.S. First Amendment
In the United States we often take for granted things like freedom of speech and our right to protest peacefully. These basic rights were written into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by our Founding Fathers, and enable us to express disagreement with unjust rules imposed by our government’s elected officials.
Recently some chilling news and events reminded me that our basic human rights protected under the First Amendment could easily be whisked away and altered by new interpretations and legislation if we’re not careful. For example, a new bill is being proposed by a Republican state senator that would make protesting a felony. The bill would label certain protesting activities as “economic terrorism” and it would also apply to those who “fund, organize, or sponsor” such protests.
Also recently, a professor at Rutgers University was taken to a New York City hospital for “psychiatric evaluation” by NYPD police because of political statements said on campus and twitter.
As a quick reminder to keep in your back pocket – since we may all need this in the coming weeks and months – here is the First Amendment followed by some quotes to bring it closer to home.
“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”.
The First Amendment was written to protect the right of the people to have free speech, in whatever way that is manifested, whether it be through newspapers, or an individual speaking on the corner, or a group getting together to communicate grievances.
This is why, during martial law – happening in many places around the world without a First Amendment – the first thing the government does is outlaw even a small number of people getting together. This is the government’s way of saying: ‘not only will we not listen to you if we somehow could hear you, but you won’t even be allowed to say anything to us whatsoever because our prohibiting your assembly means you’ll be confined to your homes, alone and silenced.’
The following quotes about freedom of speech also apply to the right of assembly because people who ‘assemble’ are usually trying to speak freely about, or directly to, governments. Because governments are often much more powerful than a lone individual, a group of people saying something can often more easily change a government that needs changing.
The Founding Fathers understood that protecting a lone individual’s right to speech is not enough. The group’s right to free speech must also be protected if governments were going to have multiple checks and balances on their power.
“You tell me that law is above freedom of utterance. And I
reply that you can have no wise laws nor free entertainment
of wise laws unless there is free expression of the wisdom
of the people — and, alas, their folly with it. But if
there is freedom, folly will die of its own poison, and the
wisdom will survive.” ~ William Allen White, Pulitzer Prize-winning Editor
“Arguing that you don’t care about the right to
privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different
than saying you don’t care about free speech because you
have nothing to say.” ~ Edward Snowden
Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free
government: When this support is taken away, the
constitution of a free society is dissolved. ~ Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Founding Father
“If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments
on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming
consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind,
reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be
taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep,
to the slaughter.” ~ George Washington, First U.S. president
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that
cannot be limited without being lost.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Founding Father
“We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose
sight of how very often it is necessary, in order to
preserve freedom for the minority, let alone for the
individual, to face that majority down.” ~ William F. Buckley Jr., Founder National Review
“Of that freedom [of thought and speech] one may say that
it is the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly
every other form of freedom.” ~ Benjamin N. Cardozo, U.S. Supreme Court Justice
“The freedom of speech and the freedom of the press have
not been granted to the people in order that they may say
the things which please, and which are based upon accepted
thought, but the right to say the things which displease,
the right to say the things which may convey the new and yet
unexpected thoughts, the right to say things, even though
they do a wrong.” ~ Samuel Gompers, U.S. labor leader
“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more
imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the
principle of free thought — not free thought for those who
agree with us but freedom for the thought that we
hate.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., U.S. Supreme Court justice
“Freedom of conscience, of education, or speech, of
assembly are among the very fundamentals of democracy and
all of them would be nullified should freedom of the press
ever be successfully challenged.” ~ Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd U.S. President
Author: Harrell Guy Graham
Harrell is the creator of the ‘you are here’ and ‘good planets are hard to find’ designs. He also started a campaign – ‘Stars in Your Eyes’ – to reduce light pollution so people can see the stars. During senior year at Bellaire High School in Houston he started an underground newspaper and took the school to court on First Amendment grounds when the principal said they were communists and suspended them for daring to suggest changes to the educational system. Harrell graduated Antioch College 1977. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org