“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”.
Is there anyone left who does not know the text, the rights, and the privileges that are summed up in the First Amendment? Has not the First Amendment guaranteed us the very right to write an article such as this, and to read it? Does it not guarantee that you will be able to comment on it in the Forum? Similarly, if you do not want anything to do with it, you have the right to disregard it.
Obviously, when there are so many rights and privileges that are meted out by just a few lines of text, there is also a lot of room for interpretation. As a matter of fact, no other amendment has become as much of a whipping boy for over-eager lawyers, fringe groups, and money-grubbing pseudo victims of imagined sleights as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution!
Take for example the separation of church and state. It is interesting that the First Amendment does not speak about separating it at all! Instead, the founding fathers simply cautioned the people not to allow the government to establish a state religion which was then to be followed by everyone to the exclusion of others. The goal was to avoid a climate in which religious persecution would once again fuel the fires of strive and civil wars within a country. At the same time, the free exercise of religion was not to be abridged, in spite of that there is a lot of movement going on to do just that in modern day America.
Freedom of speech is another portion of the First Amendment which is subject to individual interpretation and as such it is violated almost daily. Ask anyone and they will tell you that freedom of speech is a great thing! Yet ask the same people about the freedom of speech about such unspeakably evil organizations as NAMBLA whose claim to fame is little more than the planned sexual abuse of male children and the sputtering begins. Granted, you do not want to hear what they have to say, yet at the same time they have the same right to say their piece as you do. Is this right? Should it continue? If you say it should not, then your words might be the very next that are censored! Are you willing to take that risk?
The third portion of the Amendment is also hard to swallow – at times. We have the right to assemble in peace. Everyone who has ever marched in protest carrying a placard knows what an immensely empowering feeling it gives to have the right to do so. Similarly, societal change for the better was achieved by this very same right – consider Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr.! Life for everyone changed because they took to the streets. Yet in the shadow of their greatness we see the public assemblies of the KKK, the NAZI party, and illegal immigrants demanding privileges previously only awarded to citizens. Should they, too, have their right to a peaceful protest or should they be kept on the fringes?
At times the question begs whether the forefathers were perhaps a bit too confident in “we the people” and our ability to judge right from wrong and follow the spirit of the First Amendment. Thus the discussion continues: should the freedoms and privileges be curtailed for some? If so, where will you draw the line? Will you faithfully toe this line if tomorrow you find yourself behind it?