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You have – or will soon learn about – the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. Adopted just prior to Christmas 1791 as the first part of the Bill of Rights, it reads:
“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 question you’re probably pondering is – “why the heck should I care about this 225-year-old compound-complex sentence?”
Let’s put behind us that every Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) hears a 1st Amendment case in just about every term. (Though I can’t find statistics to support this, it’s probably the most tested portion of the Constitution). Let’s also forget that certain states wouldn’t sign the Constitution without some guaranteed rights that others promoted as almost overtly-too-obvious. Let’s also put behind us that, as students, your First Amendment rights are not as uniform and universal as those of adults.
Let’s instead focus on why the reasons we can provide for hating the First Amendment are the exact reasons we need it – now and forever.
- Freedom of Religion:
Some school have stopped saying the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, if only because it says “Under God.” Others have started renaming Winter Break (formerly Christmas Break) and Spring Break (formerly Easter). Yet that same religious freedom permits students to form school religious groups or to pray before my tests.Some Americans increasingly question the value of religion, even so much declaring them as Pastafarian, a made-up mockery of a religion that worships an omnipotent and omnipresent “Spaghetti Monster.” Others take current religions to new depths or heights, depending on one’s perspective.Yet, despite all these challenges to religion, America is more religious now than ever. And more Americans are having healthy conversations about faith. When I first began dating in college, my grandfather, a prodigious Lutheran Protestant, told me he really liked my girlfriend – but she wasn’t welcome in his house if she was Catholic. Instead, she was Jewish.Today, our nation is predominantly Christian, but it’s not a Christianity that is forced down your throat. In other countries, they don’t have that freedom of religion. In Saudi Arabia, it’s a requirement to be a Muslim to live there permanently. In Burma and Sri Lanka, those same Muslims are being persecuted for being a threatening minority to a Buddhist majority. In our past, states like Massachusetts and Virginia required citizens to both attend and pay a tithe to the official church each week.Muhammad Ali, now celebrated and venerated as one of the greatest athletes and outspoken advocates of all-time, refused to fight in Vietnam because of his Muslim religion. It cost him his title. It cost him his popularity. It cost him the best years of his career. He was thrown in jail for it. But he did it anyways.The Westboro Baptist Church, the infamous group who went to soldiers’ funerals wielding signs that say “God Hates Fags” and “Planes Crash, God Laughs” (you can see many more of their signs here) have the religious right to do and say these things because of the First Amendment.When I asked my students in class last week – whose skin tones and beliefs on religion span the globe – how many of them felt threatened for their life because of their religion, not one student raised their hands.
This is why we have religious freedom.
- Freedom of Speech:
I have explained to my students that Freedom of Speech also permits the Freedom to Sound Like an Idiot. In fact, the only way to combat idiotic speech is with more free speech. As long as the speech doesn’t place people in immediate and/or imminent danger (yelling “Fire” in a movie theater).As the Westboro Baptist traveled to funeral after funeral spewing their hate, a group of bikers began following them and drowning them out by revving their engines in counter-protest. No law was needed. No police were called to broker the peace. We simply had two groups of individuals standing there, debating over the course of an event.In the past, students have protested the Vietnam War (in the landmark Tinker case), written articles and given speeches in support of or opposition to changes in school board policy, and others have the right to say what’s on their mind, even if it’s something we don’t agree with. Indeed, NFL player Colin Kaepernick has the right to sit down during the National Anthem. He’s hardly the first to do it, and he’ll hardly be the last.Freedom of Speech guarantees these fans’ right to burn Kaepernick’s jersey, or people who want to burn the American Flag. That same right guarantees this police officer’s voice to write an open letter, sharing his frustrations with Kaepernick. Or this author, who reminds us that there are other, more awful ways to protest.In fact, you can honor the National Anthem however you want. Next time you hear see the Stars and Stripes and hear Star-Spangled Banner playing, think about how many people aren’t 100% adhering to the recommended way to pay homage to our flag. They don’t have to follow the protocol with fear of reprisal and arrest – because this is America.Throughout my career, there have been students who’ve also decided not to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I always want to know why they decide to do that, and usually begin a conversation about it, but I uphold their right to their freedom of expression.China, North Korea, and other countries don’t permit people to say certain things in public or search for others on the Internet. Not America.
This is why we have free speech.
- Freedom of the Press:
Newsflash! The media is supposed to be the “fourth estate,” a check on the presidential, Congressional, and judicial components of our society. While it’s my belief that they do their best to uphold a common decency and fairness in reporting, they have the right to say whatever they want. Each time I begin my browser, I start by reading two completely opposing online news sources: the Drudge Report (on the right) and the Huffington Post (on the left) are often telling the same story, but from different sides. Our press has that right.In Turkey, a nation I visited in 2012, the press was still free – able to say whatever it wanted. That’s not so much the case now, as the national government controls the largest news networks. I’m not interested in living in a society like that. Instead, I’m interested in freer press, as the US is still only the 41st free press in the world (a number that keeps declining instead of improving). If I’m the President, I want a freedom where anybody can write in the newspaper how big of an idiot I am.Contrarily, when Gov. Daniels of Indiana wanted to censor teachers, I had the right to pick up the pen (or iPad) and write an editorial slamming him or an article celebrating the end to No Child Left Behind.Keep in mind it was the press that shared the news of the American Revolution, the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, the Teapot Dome Scandal, and more. The press is far from perfect, but who should we trust to make it better? Your version of that answer can lead to more or less free press.This is why we have a free media.
- Right to Peaceably Assemble:
This past summer, my school district served as a spot for Donald Drumpf to hold a campaign rally. In doing so, I can’t tell you how many people contacted me to help bring that to a halt. And to each opponent of Drumpf, I told them the same thing. You won’t see me support this candidate or pretty much his entire platform, but you will 100% see me support his right to be there. There is no captive audience – in fact, school wasn’t even in session yet. But there were supporters who wanted to see him – by the thousands, have you. As the Presidential Candidate for a political party – he, Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and a host of other candidates have that right to peaceably assemble there. Sure, there was some controversy, as one protester snuck in and was roughed up a bit. (Turns out he had the same message for the Clinton rally to a much less interested crowd).Outside, however, there were protesters to Drumpf’s arrival. And then there were counter-protesters. Just as Westboro Baptists and the bikers have the right to peaceably assemble, so do these individuals. So do teachers when they want to strike. So did a primarily Neo-Nazi group who wanted to march through a neighborhood of Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois. Heck, I used this right to host a political debate at my school this past year.Just because we don’t agree with one another doesn’t mean one side should be excluded from their version of the story. The alternative is those who are stunted and their speech made illegal will go underground, they feel ignored, shunned, or mistreated, and their messages fester into violence. Though I love the American Flag, I’d rather it be hanged and then burned on a pole than an American.Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t allowed to gather with thousands of supporters in DC in the summer of 1963. We’d never had a “I have a dream speech.”This is why we have the right to assemble.
- Right to Petition:
The last of our guaranteed First Amendment rights offers us a chance to hold our government accountable. The late-18th-century French struggled with leadership when they didn’t know how to remove it from office – so they killed them off, over and over again in their bloody revolution. Here we can circle a petition to do something about it. We can impeach and remove them from office. We can vote them out the next time they’re up.There’s a system of checks-and-balances here with the right to petition, it starts at the ground-roots level. Say what you will about the Obama Administration, but their ability to give people a voice – whereby Pres. Obama has said he’d respond to any petition on the We The People of WhiteHouse.gov that acquires more than 20,000 signatures – is a surefire method to see that this component of our First Amendment rights are still intact – even if it requires the President to respond to deporting Piers Morgan or releasing his honey ale lager recipe.Locally, we have the right to question our tax assessment, fines for speeding tickets, and elected officials decisions. Likewise, since I don’t believe that the Citizens United v. FEC SCOTUS case should have decided that campaign contributions should equal free speech (which I stand firmly to after watching that State Senate debate be worth almost $1.5 million), I have the right to – and have petitioned – my government.Most recently, a few girls who were tired of being humiliated for violating a draconian dress code at their school went to a school board meeting with their peers’ support to change the policy and make it fairer. And they won.This is why we have the right to petition.
While many of the things we learn about in this class will be full clouds of gray, the rights provided by the First Amendment are either black or white. Here’s the kicker – in 2012, 1 in every 3 Americans said that our First Amendment rights went too far.
I’d argue that if they want to start to erode them a bit, we move into that gray area. And if we lose the right to free religion, speech, press, protest, and petition – even just a little, we won’t have them at all.
As you move from childhood to adulthood, I want you to uphold these freedoms. While you have limits on your First Amendment rights, you grow into them as you become a citizen. And, when that happens, I want you to remember the importance of the First Amendment. Even when you’re offended, off-put, or upset by what’s being said – remind yourself that it’s the American right. Our Founders fought for so long to produce the government most reflective of the people, by the people, and for the people. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that it’s also of each person, by each person, and for each person, too.
Mr. Jake Miller
and your fellow teachers who believe in the First Amendment