First Amendment of the United States Constitution

We live in an imperfect union, but if you have ever lived anywhere else outside this country, you cannot help but develop a deep appreciation for the freedom to speak one’s mind; to practice one’s religion of choice, or not; the choice to participate in such diverse groups as the Neo Nazis ; or join the Million Man March, or demonstrate against the war outside the White House; and especially,  to have access and to enjoy the free flow of information from our the press, the internet and the various social networks.

We owe these unique freedoms to the First Amendment added to the Constitution at the insistence of Thomas Jefferson. It is based on the Freedom of Religion amendment he drafted for the Virginia State Constitution. It was finally ratified 1791.

It is as follows:

“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 to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Of course, this most free-wheeling of all the Amendments in the Bill of Rights is probably the most controversial. The old saying, one man’s poison is another man’s remedy might apply here.

While the Supreme Court has routinely held that First Amendment freedoms are absolute, they may also be limited so as to protect the rights of others, (libel, privacy), subversion of government and the spreading of subversion during war time.

The Supreme Court however, does not recognize obscenity falling under the protection of the First Amendment. This area is a minefield for the Court as it does not want to turn itself into “Big Brother” or the morality police.

However it will intervene if it (meaning whatever is presented to the Court) is a danger to the nation or it jeopardizes citizens such as children, e.g. child pornography

I think of George Carlin’s wonderful monologue Dirty Words in which he deftly skewers the hypocrisy of the FCC and broadcasters in censoring him and others who might use  f***** or some other politically incorrect word  in their comedic dialogues, or accidentally like Bono at the Grammy’s.

The Court will be hearing arguments during the fall session concerning the FCC’s ban on obscene words and pictures.  At issue is the exposure of a woman’s backside in an episode of NYPD Blue.

Decisions handed down in the name of the First Amendment are numerous and almost always controversial..

Let’s look at the two most recent decisions:

Brown v Entertainment Merchants Association” provoked the usual controversy.  The Supremes voted in the name of the First Amendment to protect objectionable speech from government efforts to censor and restrict.  Justice Scalia stated that “even when protection is the object (of a law), the constitutional limits of government action apply.”

California state legislators have to go back to the drawing board to devise legislation that will limit access to violent videos by young people.  It will be a very tricky proposition, given the Court’s decision.

The other First Amendment decision handed down by the Supremes this session was in “Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom Club Pac v. Bennett.” In a 5-4 decision the Court stated that Arizona’s public financing of campaigns is fine.  However, it infringes upon free speech to provide supplementary funding to publicly funded candidates who are being outspent by privately funded rivals.

And so it goes. The First Amendment protects the right of Glen Beck to be stupid, the right of some wacked out preacher to hold his flock in hostage, the right of Sarah Palin to be even more stupid, and everyone and anyone to express their views on whatever topic is on their mind.

elizabeth knipeThe Wikileaks case is around the corner, and that will be true test of this most treasured part of our Constitution.

I love the First Amendment, as I am a person who tends to shoot from the hip.

Treasure it, and thank Thomas Jefferson and the rest of our Founding Fathers that they had the vision to enshrine these rights no other government had ever given its citizens into a written document.

Elizabeth Knipe

Elizabeth Knipe has been a longtime member of the Board of Valley Dems United, and active in local Democratic politics for many years.  Prior to moving to Los Angeles, she worked in Washington D.C. in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

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