As we all know, the Declaration of Independence was made on July 4, 1776. It was a momentous occasion as the 13 original colonies decided to band together to create an independent nation.
But how to govern that new country? That’s where the U.S. Constitution came into play, drafted in 1787 and ratified in 1789, 11 and 13 years, respectively, after we declared our independence from England.
The Constitution starts off with a preamble -- the part that states “We the People” and includes the concept of forming “a more perfect union.” There are then seven Articles. Article I concerns Congress; II, the president; III, the judicial system; IV, the relations among and between the states; V, the process of amending the Constitution; VI, establishing that the Constitution is the “supreme law” of the land; and VII, describing the process for establishing the new government.
There is then a closing endorsement, which includes the signatures of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention.
Since then, there have been 27 amendments to the Constition. The First, Second and Third Amendments provide for the safeguard of liberties. The First Amendment will be my focus during the following weeks as I discuss the “Five Freedoms” enshrined by it.
But let me continue with my own premable first.
The Fourth through Eighth Amendments provide for the safeguards of justice; the Ninth and 10th cover unenumerated rights and reserved powers; the 11th, 16th, 18th and 21st deal with governmental authority; the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 23rd, 24th and 26th all establish safeguards of civil rights; finally, the 12th, 17th, 20th, 22nd, 25th and 27th deal with government processes and procedures.
Now, let’s dive into the First Amendment and its Five Freedoms. The Amendment starts off by saying “Congress shall make no law...”
1. “...respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...”
2. and 3. “...or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...” (Although I’ll write about them separately in future columns, I’m linking these together here because of the way the Amendment is written and because what is published by the press is an extension of speech.)
4. “...or the right of the people peaceably to assemble...”
5. “...and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
As often as anyone discusses these freedoms, there is debate.
Exactly what did the Founding Fathers mean when they wrote this?
For example, many people latch on to the words “freedom of religion” and note that it does not say “freedom from religion.” Supporters of that concept, say that means that America is a religious-based nation. Others consider the Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law...”) to be a firm separation of church and state.
On the freedom of speech and of the press, I happen to believe in responsible use of those freedoms. But, you ask, what does that mean? After all, my opinion is mine and yours is yours and some expert at some university or think tank is another.
The old adage is that you shouldn’t yell “Fire!” in a movie theater unless there really is a fire. By the same token, you shouldn’t libel or slander someone.
On the other hand, as despicable as hate speech -- of any kind -- is, and as much as I personally detest it, at what point does it go beyond some limit of the First Amendment?
Peaceable assembly means just that: the people can assemble, as long as they do so peacefully. Does “peacefully” mean “quietly?” I don’t think so. You can be as loud as you want to be during a march or protest. As long as you don’t break any laws, you should, in my book, be able to hold your rally pretty much anytime, anywhere.
But am I right?
Petitioning the government. I have to turn to others to even begin discussing this one. John Inazu and Burt Neuborne, writing on ConstituionCenter.org (run by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia) say this right has been all but nullified. It was, from what I can tell, originally meant to allow citizens to petition the original Congress and federal courts, but later included all state courts, legislatures and executive branches, as well as the executive branch of the U.S. (the president).
In essence, the right to petition is the right to sue the government.
During the next five weeks, I’ll be exploring these Five Freedoms as part of the S.C. Press Association’s participation in “Think F1rst,” a national campaign to educate the public on the First Amendment and the freedoms it guarantees.
Freedom of Religion. Freedom of Speech. Freedom of the Press. Freedom to Peaceably Assemble. Freedom to Petition.
These are your fundamental rights. Protect them.