First Amendment protects individual rights
by Linn and Ari Armstrong
The following article was originally published by Grand Junction Free Press on March 20, 2006.
We didn't know just how bad it was. Previously we mentioned the study that found more Americans can identify Simpson cartoon characters than can name the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. It gets worse. The entire study, published by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, may be found at mccormicktribune.org.
"The less Americans know about freedoms, the more they are likely to erode without our notice," the introduction to the study argues.
One of our friends is an Iranian immigrant. He says he used to read smuggled books like 1984, books that could have gotten him in a lot of trouble had he been caught with them. He also got a copy of the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. He just couldn't believe that a country actually existed where people practiced these rights -- and where they were written down as the highest law of the land! Now he is an American who enjoys those protections.
In the Soviet Union, Stalin murdered writers and intellectuals. Other tyrants did the same. History is filled with examples of religious persecution and mass murders arising from religious conflicts. Today writers in places like China and Iran literally risk their lives and safety to speak openly. Islamic totalitarians have threatened the lives of Danish cartoonists.
The First Amendment matters. The rights of free expression that it protects matter. They are essential to our civilization and, ultimately, our very lives.
So here it is: "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."
To summarize, the First Amendment protects the rights of religion, speech, press (or media), assembly, and petition.
Thankfully, 70 percent of those polled could name freedom of speech. (What's going on with the other 30 percent?) But only a fourth could name freedom of religion, and only a tenth could name freedoms of the press and assembly. Only 28 percent of those polled could name two or more of the rights.
"Remarkably, only one person of the 1,000 interviewed was able to correctly name all five freedoms," the study reports.
And consider these findings: "A majority also incorrectly said the right to vote and the right to trial by jury were guaranteed by the First Amendment. Other rights that more than one-third believes come from the First Amendment include right to own a gun, the right to an attorney, the right against self incrimination, the right of women to vote and the right to a public education. About one in five say the right to own and raise pets and the right to drive a car are First Amendment rights as well."
Unfortunately, ignorance is not the only threat to our First-Amendment freedoms. Both the left and the right have tried to make up "rights" that aren't really rights, and they've tried to limit actual rights that are properly protected by the First Amendment.
David Lane, the attorney for both Ward Churchill and Jay Bennish, argued that his clients' tax-funded jobs are protected by the First Amendment. That's simply Bill-of-Rights malpractice. There is no "right" to propagandize on somebody else's dime. Indeed, taxpayers also have a right of free expression -- and that right is violated when they are forced to fund the propagation of ideas that they find offensive. Nobody threatened to throw Churchill or Bennish in jail, which would have violated their First-Amendment rights. Employment contracts may protect on-the-job speech, but that has nothing to do with the First Amendment.
Yet the right shouldn't get too smug in their condemnations of Churchill and Bennish, given that some members of the right want to use tax funds to promote school prayer and the teaching of religious creationism. The courts have rightly barred such activity. (Of course, market schools may teach whatever they wish.)
The left has limited rights of free speech through the campaign-finance laws and state controls of radio and television broadcasts. But the right has limited rights of free speech by trying to outlaw pornography and "obscenity." In a 1973 essay, Ayn Rand takes the Supreme Court to task for creating an arbitrary, collective-based, inherently ambiguous definition of "obscenity" that opens the door to more censorship.
The ultimate enemy of the First Amendment is the false doctrine that the rights of the individual may be sacrificed to the state or to the collective. Properly understood, individual rights, which include the rights of expression and, more fundamentally, rights of property, are inviolable, and they are consistent with the (legitimate) rights of all other people.
By the standard of individual rights, the Bill of Rights is the greatest legal achievement in human civilization. You owe it to yourself and to your children to learn about those rights.