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.
There are two beautiful truths everyone should know about the First Amendment to the US Constitution. An understanding of these two truths is the only hope we have for remaining a truly free society.
The first truth is simple and obvious; the First Amendment is one sentence. “Short and sweet,” some might say. It was written to be broad, inclusive, and authoritative. In that one sentence the “four pillars” of free speech; freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to petition government, are all touched upon as co-equal rights.
Second, it is a restriction upon the government, not the people. Thus the amendment states that “Congress shall make no law” either favoring or prohibiting religious freedoms, press freedoms, free speech, and our right to petition government. At first the law applied only to the federal government, but in 1925, the US Supreme Court ruled in Gitlow v. New York that Fourteenth Amendment protections imposed the same limitations on state government as well.
So, what the First Amendment amounts to is my guaranteed right to offend some or even all my fellow citizens with what I say and write. No doubt some have read my articles and already been offended. For those who have offended me with their ideas I say only, “more power to you!”
Which is why one of the greatest ironies of modern times is that a few powerful and influential liberals have flipped this law on its head so as to justify the use of government power to restrict free speech. These so-called ‘intellectuals’ in their wisdom have determined, for example, that “freedom of religion” really means “freedom from religion.” And since government, in their minds, is the impartial, benevolent force that guides us, it is their job to insure free of religion, speech, the press, and the right to petition through the creation of rules, ordinances, and laws.
By taking a Jefferson quote regarding the “wall of separation” between church and state out of context, liberals have argued that the “wall” referred to by Jefferson is a call to legislation and judicial activism. Of course, what Jefferson really meant was that the First Amendment serves as more of a restraining order against government. It’s meant to insure that government cannot do the very things that liberals insist it must do, restrict and regulate free speech. How do we know this to be true? Because Jefferson said many other things about this amendment, such as this illuminating quote:
I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions . . . or exercises. Letter to Samuel Miller, 1808.
Here we can truly understanding the definition of “wall” from Jefferson’s oft quoted “wall of separation” comment to Danbury Baptists. He was saying that it’s a barrier, a restraining order, against government. The government has no power to regulate the free exercise of religion. The people themselves are not similarly restrained. But, in the minds of some liberals, exactly the opposite is true. How can government be put in charge of enforcing the First Amendment when this amendment prohibits government from making laws respecting or abridging these freedoms?
This is akin to putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Why not just change the law so that, when a court issues a restraining order against an abusive person, they put that same person in charge of enforcing the order? That makes just as much sense as what we see today with government and judicial activism in regards to our speech rights.
Thus we have “free speech zones” where protesters are ‘allowed’ to assemble when a public figure is speaking at a rally, speech codes in schools and on college campuses across the country, restrictions on the use of public facilities by religious organizations, censorship of monuments that might in any overt or covert way express religious faith, a myriad of campaign finance laws which tell candidates when and how they can address the public with donations provided by the public, and many other such restrictions.
One of the true strengths of a democratic society is the ability to express ourselves freely. With the right to free speech comes the guarantees someone is going to be offended at some level. Which is why, the true test of tolerance is not our ability to repress offensive ideas, speech, art, etc., but our ability to answer back with more speech to counter those offensive ideas. The only real answer to speech with which we disagree is more speech, not less.
The final thing to consider is this. The Constitution was crafted in such a way that it gave fundamental power to the people, not the government. It was a rejection of the idea that a few elites were better equipped to run our lives than we ourselves are equipped to run them. It was an affirmation of the wisdom inherent in a free society to run its own affairs.
In the past 100 years we have seen an attempt on the part of the elites to turn away from that principle and to once again assert the supposed right of the few to lead the many. It’s a philosophy that has been disproved continuously through all of human history, and it’s one which we must not allow in this country again. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”