OPENING COMMENTS: That said, there is one thing I have to get off my chest before I begin discussing the Bill of Rights; the ten amendments which comprise the Bill of Rights are more than just catch-phrases to be tossed about without any true understanding of what they mean. There is an old saying that applies well to these amendments protecting certain rights; they say what they mean and they mean what they say. To understand the Bill of Rights you must take them in their entirety, understand the words used, the phrasing, and then realize that the entire amendment is a binding law upon all. Otherwise you are wasting your time even attempting to study them.
The First Amendment: 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.
What is the first word of the First Amendment? Had you ever taken the time to pay attention you may have noticed that none of the remaining nine amendments in the Bill of Rights begins with the wording; Congress shall make no law… Have you ever stopped to ask yourself why? It is because under our Constitution Congress is the sole lawmaking body of our government and it is only Congress that can enact laws which could possibly restrict our rights. The president can’t, and certainly it is not within the purview of the courts to do so.
To continue, the first clause of the First Amendment goes on to say; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The wording of this clause is very important if you want to fully understand the intent of it. When they write respecting an establishment of religion the word establishment does not mean all religion; it means one particular sect. So what they meant was that Congress could not pass a law establishing a national religion. Their reasoning was based upon the fact that the very first settlers to New England came here to avoid persecution from the Church of England and did not want to see a state sponsored church infringe upon the beliefs of those who might adhere to differing beliefs.
It was never intended that the First Amendments freedom of religion clause prohibit anyone from worshipping as they saw fit. Two years prior to the Constitution being written James Madison wrote, what is probably his best work ever, a Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. Madison wrote it in opposition to a bill introduced by Patrick Henry which would tax the people of Virginia to support religious teaching. Madison states, “The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.”
He then went on to say, “Because if Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but the creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited: it is limited with regard to the co-ordinate departments, more necessarily is it limited with regard to the constituents. The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people.”
Therefore, if the religious freedom clause of the First Amendment states two things; first that Congress cannot enact laws respecting an establishment of religion, and secondly, they could not pass a law which prohibits the free exercise thereof. The reasoning for which is best explained by something Thomas Jefferson said in the Kentucky Resolutions, “One of the amendments to the Constitution… expressly declares that ‘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,’ thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others.”
However recent Supreme Court rulings have ruled that the separation of church and state prohibits any discussion of religion in places where tax dollars provide the funding for their operation; such as in schools because religious discussion may offend those who do not believe in God. This is a gross misinterpretation of what Jefferson meant when he first coined the phrase a separation of church and state.
When Jefferson was elected as our third president the Danbury Baptists wrote him to express their concern over religious freedom in their state; declaring that a state sponsored religion denied them the freedom to worship as they please. The Danbury’s letters states the following; “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”
Jefferson’s response, containing the aforementioned phrase about a wall of separation between church and states, declares, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
Jefferson’s intent was that the state could not force anyone to respect an establishment of religion, nor prohibit them from freely exercising their beliefs; the exact meaning of the First Amendment’s religious freedom clause. As Jefferson would later write in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Read the highlighted section as many times as necessary for it to sink in; the government, including the Supreme Court, cannot restrict our freedom of worship simply because it offends someone else’s beliefs, as being offended is not injurious to others, or as Jefferson said, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
In 1844 the Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous decision, “Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a divine revelation in the college – its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles morality inculcated? … Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?” (Vidal v. Girard’s Educators)
Today people, particularly atheists, say that any discussion of religion in schools is a violation of the wall of separation of church and state, and that by discussing religious principles it may offend those who do not believe. Yet nowhere in the First Amendment is there a clause protecting you from being offended by someone’s free speech. In fact, in 1989 Supreme Court Justice William Brennan ruled, “If there is a bedrock principle of the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
This leads directly into the next clause of the First Amendment which protects freedom of speech. If our rights are unalienable, meaning they cannot be surrendered or taken from us, how then can society deem speech offensive and therefore prohibit someone from saying things that others find offensive? Yet that is what political correctness is; a movement to stifle the free discussion of ideas just because one group may find particular aspects of the ideas being discussed offensive.
Freedom of speech means just what it says; the freedom to say what one wants regardless of whether it offends others. However, there is something people need to understand, if they say something about a subject they know nothing about, they cannot complain when someone more informed about the subject provides evidence that proves the things they said to be untrue. That is what freedom of speech is all about; the free discussion of ideas and beliefs. If one side is restricted from speaking due to political correctness then we don’t have a free discussion of ideas, do we?
Believe me, I’ve been the victim of political correctness quite a few times. I have been told that my beliefs and the things I write about are offensive to others; even though I have provided ample evidence to support the things I say. The only argument used against what I have said has been that it hurts people’s feelings, or that it is offensive. Listen, I will be the first to recant what I’ve said if someone provides evidence which proves me wrong. But I refuse to allow my right to speak my mind freely be restricted simply because someone else finds what I say offensive. As Jefferson said in regards to religious discussion, “It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” and speaking freely does neither.
The next clause of the First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. This may not seem of any importance to some, but it is of great importance if the people are to be provided with unbiased and truthful information in regards to the actions of their government. I find it somewhat ironic that the freedom of the press is protected by constitutional amendment, yet when our Constitution was in the process of being discussed by the various states there was a concerted effort by the Federalists, (those who supported ratification), to limit or restrict anti-Federalist writings. This was done so that any opposition to the Constitution did not gain a foothold among the people who would be chosen to decide whether to accept, or reject it.
Nonetheless, the idea of a free and independent press is essential if the people wish a truthful and unbiased reporting of the news. Unfortunately, today we have anything but a free press; they are more like ministers of propaganda than true journalists.
There is an organization, The Society of Professional Journalists, which lays out certain ethics that journalists should adhere to when reporting the news. Without going into great detail let their preamble state the ethics journalists should adhere to, “Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”
Yet how well do those who provide us with our news actually adhere to that code of ethics? Not very well if you ask me, as their reporting is often one sided and biased. As Richard M. Cohen, Senior Producer of CBS political news once said, “We are going to impose our agenda on the coverage by dealing with issues and subjects that we choose to deal with.”
Then there is this, taken from a speech delivered by John Swinton, editor of the New York Tribune, “There is no such thing as an independent press in America, unless it is in the country towns. You know it and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write your honest opinions, and if you did, you know beforehand that it would never appear in print. I am paid $150.00 a week for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper I am connected with. Others of you are paid similar salaries for doing similar things. If I should permit honest opinions to be printed in one issue of my paper, like Othello, before twenty-four hours, my occupation would be gone. The business of the New York journalist is to destroy truth; to lie outright; to pervert; to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon; to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. We are the tools and vessels for rich men behind the scenes. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
Why is this? Well, it’s quite simple actually. The same people who funnel the vast sums of money that fuel the political parties in America own the news media. Just over 30 years ago the ownership of the news media was spread out among 50 companies; today that number has dwindled down to six mega-corporations that own and control all that we hear, see, and read. Their agenda’s drive what news, and the slant it is given, we get. This has been going on for quite some time; dating back to at least 1915 as stated by Congressman Oscar Calloway in a speech delivered in Congress in 1917, “In March, 1915, the J.P. Morgan interests, the steel, shipbuilding, and powder interests, and their subsidiary organizations, got together 12 men high up in the newspaper world and employed them to select the most influential newspapers in the United States, and a sufficient number of them, to control generally the policy of the daily press….They found it was only necessary to purchase the control of 25 of the greatest papers.
An agreement was reached; the policy of the papers was bought, to be paid for by the month; an editor was furnished for each paper, to properly supervise and edit information regarding the questions of preparedness, militarism, financial policies, and other things of national and international nature, considered vital to the interests of the purchasers.”
Centuries ago Thomas Jefferson warned of the dangers of a press that did not provide the people with the whole truth, “The most effectual engines for [pacifying a nation] are the public papers… [A despotic] government always [keeps] a kind of standing army of newswriters who, without any regard to truth or to what should be like truth, [invent] and put into the papers whatever might serve the ministers. This suffices with the mass of the people who have no means of distinguishing the false from the true paragraphs of a newspaper.” (Thomas Jefferson to G. K. van Hogendorp, Oct. 13, 1785)
If the same people who dictate the policy of the political parties own and control the news media then doesn’t it seem logical that they are going to provide us only with the news that shifts and shapes public opinion to their benefit? After all, reporting the truth would be like intentionally shooting themselves in the foot.
The final two clauses of the First Amendment are “…the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Having recently fought a war against a tyrannical government that heeded not the colonists petitions for justice, in securing certain rights, they wanted to ensure that any system of government established would provide a means for the people to protest against what they felt to be invasions of their rights without fear of repercussions; and they wanted a means by which the people could contact it and petition it when they felt it had overstepped its authority.
Their reasoning for these rights dates back to the Declaration of Independence when Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.” Those who pushed for a Bill of Rights wanted the government to hear the voice of the people and remain accountable to them.
I have no idea how many of my readers have ever written, or called their elected representatives, but if you have you know that most of the time all you get is a form letter in response to your mail, or you get some staffer to take your call. I fully understand that these people are probably busy and cannot personally answer every call or every letter they get. But the problem is that they remain insulated from the people they represent and we lose the right to voice our concerns to them directly.
How many of you have seen the videos of people trying to bring up legitimate questions in a town hall meeting, only to find themselves escorted out by event security or local law enforcement? The truth is they don’t care what we think or say, and unless we show up en masse on their doorsteps to protest their actions, they are going to continue to do whatever they please; phone calls and letters mean nothing to them.
After all, what good does a few thousand letters or phone calls, or even a petition signed by hundreds of thousands of people, if these same people go out and vote these representatives back into office the next election cycle? If I were in office and I kept getting re-elected, even though I received thousands of letters and phone calls a week complaining about how I voted, then I would believe that the people are too stupid to simply vote me out of office and continue doing whatever I wanted; regardless of how the people felt about it. But that’s just me.
Regardless, that is the reason why the right to assemble and petition the government was included in the First Amendment, as it is a form of freedom of speech in that you retain the right to freely oppose the actions of your government; and complain to them when you feel they are abusing their authority…for all the good it does us these days.
This concludes my discussion/interpretation of the First Amendment. I hope I have cleared a few things up and got you to thinking about it. Now let’s move on to the Second Amendment.