I feel like a lot of people have been misusing the First Amendment. I’ve heard many people throughout my life use the “Freedom of Speech” claim to excuse themselves from unpopular opinions they might hold. It doesn’t sound like many of them have read the Constitutional Amendment they are citing. If they had, maybe they didn’t understand it fully. Maybe they had someone interpret it for them in grade school and the interpretation was mucked. Maybe they heard someone else use “freedom of Speech” as a scapegoat and they decided to do it too. Whatever the case, I think it is vitally important to the future of our country to understand this Amendment and use the “Freedom of Speech” claim properly.
To properly understand and interpret anything we must consider context. For example, as a classical musician, when I am performing a piece of music it is near impossible of me to perform an authentic interpretation of the song if I do not first research the composer, the time period, the performance norms of that time period, the history of notable performances, and any changes to performance norms of that piece since it’s composition, in great detail. The more information I have for the context of the piece of music, the more genuine and authentic I can interpret and perform it.
For the interpretation and understanding of something as significant and vital to millions of peoples’ lives and well-being as the US Constitution, we should undergo the same process. We need to consider all the context we can. Too often I hear people throw out the phrase “Freedom of Speech” as a justification for their expression, but they couldn’t tell me the actual words of the Amendment, let alone its meaning. Let’s consider the words, the context in which they were written, and how they apply to our modern society.
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 a lot of parts to this. To understand it, lets break it down into parts and make it more visually appealing. (That always helps)
Congress shall make no law;
- respecting an establishment of religion
- prohibiting the free exercise thereof [religion]
- abridging the freedom of speech
- [abridging the freedom of] the press
- [abridging the] right of the people peaceably to assemble
- [abridging the freedom] to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
The first two points are talking about Freedom of Religion. Religion, when you consider it on a more global, infinite, unlimited perspective, is really the organization of your beliefs. So though our Founding Fathers wrote this with religious Churches and places of holy worship in mind, I think the progressive and modern interpretation has to consider “Religion” as personal spiritual beliefs, especially considering the rise of Atheist and Panthiest spiritual practices.
This means that our government cannot make a law which establishes a religion, or which keeps others from practicing religions. That sounds contradictory and confusing to most modern speakers. Historically, what could this have meant? There is a long history of the church being tied up with the state. Our founding fathers came here from England. England has a history of changing religions when a new family assumes power. Example, prior to 1509, Henry VIII was a Catholic. He married a Catholic Spanish Queen. During their reign, practicing any other religion openly was punishable by death. In 1509, he established, through his “Divine Right” the Church of England. He did this for purely selfish and Patriarchal reasons– so he could divorce his Queen and remarry Anne Boleyn–a secret protestant. England was forced to convert to the Church of England. Catholics who protested or criticized the King for his betrayal of the Vatican and the Pope were put to death for heresy. When Henry’s daughter, Queen Mary, took the throne after her father and brother, she went on a rampage to hunt down all the Protestants, and many of them were sentenced to die for their beliefs. Her younger sister Queen Elizabeth took the throne and the whole country went protestant again. Though Elizabeth is historically seen as more tolerant the the other Tudors, many Catholics died under her rule for their beliefs. The Church of England is still around today. It was established by a government.
England is the country our Founding Fathers came from. Understanding the history of their country–their establishment of one central religion and persecution of all others– can understand what an otherwise contradictory sounding statement means. The government is not allowed to make a law which respects the establishment of a religion, or prohibits the exercise of it. In simple words, the US government cannot own or represent or establish any one religion, as was done in England. Similarly, the government cannot make any laws which keep individuals from practicing their religion, regardless of what that religion is. The government is not allowed to be involved with personal beliefs.
The final four points of the First Amendment go together. They say, the government cannot make a law which infringes upon our freedom to speak, freedom to be published, freedom to peacefully congregate and make up a petition of grievances.
Once again, lets looks at the Founding Fathers’ context. In England at that time, to speak out against the King, the Royal Family, The Church (which was entwined with the Royal Family and, politically, with the Monarchy) was considered High Treason, and was punishable by death. The Founding Fathers recognized that this was not a healthy environment for political success on behalf of the People. In fact, it was a tyrannical environment. Those who protested were risking their lives and often killed. Those who wrote pamphlets about how to improve the state of their country were risking their lives. Anyone who spoke out was risking High Treason. Even the wrong opinion at a cocktail party in front of the King’s men could get you hanged if they needed a reason.
The First Amendment was put in place so that the people could protest the government without being tried for High Treason when they say something negative about the government. Our right to Freedom of Speech is about speaking out about the government. Our right to the press is our right to publish things against the government. Our right to peacefully assemble is our right to protest. Our right to petition our grievances means we get to tell the government when we don’t like what they’re doing, and they cannot throw us in jail for it.
I want to point this out because it seems like many people believe that the First Amendment is protecting our right to speak our opinions to each other. Often, I will hear people justify hate speech toward other citizens with the phrase “Freedom of Speech.” This isn’t at all what the Founding Fathers were thinking about when they wrote the First Amendment, I would bet money. I fear our true 1st Amendment right has been so blurred and stretched and reinterpreted we’ve forgotten what it was put in place for. The purpose of the first amendment was to give us the lawful right to protest our government, not to justify the use of ignorance and hate speech toward citizens.
The “Freedom of Speech” scapegoat is so overused, some people actually use it as an avoidance tool. The truth is, we’ve always been allowed to talk shit on other people. We’ve always been allowed to sling hate speech at another citizen. (Do you bit your thumb at me, sir?) The Founding Fathers were probably not thinking about whether or not they could call someone a mean name and it started a gun duel and someone died. There’s an easier solution to that–make it illegal to kill people and make all humans suffer the consequences of their actions. Your right to say basically whatever you want in public is protected by laws against violence, assault, and murder, not by the First Amendment.
You were always allowed to talk shit on a fellow citizen. Sometimes, it makes you an asshole, but its not really against the law and we certainly didn’t need to put it in the constitution.
Your right to be an asshole is not what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment.
The Constitution was not written to be the law of the people. The government writes those laws. It was a philosophically and politically researched collection of rules for the Government to follow so that we could remain a true democracy. It was written in the perspective of the people, but its a guideline for the government. This is a guideline which would hopefully prevent any level of corruption from turning the Founding Fathers’ precious Democratic brain child into an oppressive Monarchy, or a censored Tyranny, or an Oligarchic Servitude. A brilliant idea–until the guideline itself became corrupted by misinterpretations and reinterpretations.
All this to say, stop claiming Freedom of Speech when you’re expressing an opinion against another citizen. That’s not Freedom of Speech, so much as its just you speaking. Know that if you say something cruel or ignorant, you are an adult making a decision and there may or may not be consequences for that decision depending on who you say it around. The consequences will not be delivered by the government, but it doesn’t mean your fellow citizen owes you, or your opinions, respect. The consequences of speaking an ignorant opinion in the wrong crowd is pretty basic–you’re probably not going to be a part of that crowd anymore unless you are willing to be humbled by them. That has nothing to do with the government. That has to do with being a decent person.
Don’t use the First Amendment to oppress other people, or to justify your hateful words and bigoted expressions. It was made for the opposite–to unite and strengthen the people against their government. The proper understanding of our Constitution is necessary to maintain Democracy.The misuse of this Amendment is threatening Democracy. We are already an Oligarchy, and most of the lowest classes are living as indenture servants to the work force and the Banks simply so they can survive.
PS, the 2nd Amendment was made with the same intention in mind. Not so you could protect yourself against criminals like a civilian vigilante, but so you could rise up against your government if another revolution becomes necessary–which the more lucid they get with these interpretations the closer we are to revolution. Also, it has nothing to do with regulations, it just makes sure the government can’t ban all citizens from owning guns. The Second Amendment doesn’t protect anyone from the necessary regulation of weapons purchasing–just says that we’re allowed to own them for the purpose of the Second American Revolution.