The increasing importance of the First Amendment (Part II)

American-Flag-and-ConstitutionIt is probably the shortest of the original ten amendments that were ratified as the Bill of Rights. Although its wording is fairly plain and simple, its meanings have been debated in the nation’s courthouses, school rooms, college classrooms, political debates, congressional hearings and churches nationwide since its adoption in 1791.  It is amazing that yet again, just a decade into the 21st century, we are nationally struggling to define what was meant by those 18th century authors who wrote 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.  


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Although I intended to briefly overview the First Amendment within my last post, I never was able to move beyond the “religious freedoms” clause of the Amendment and the reasons why it was deemed essential enough to be included. I have often thought that Benjamin Franklin’s  quote, “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech.” The entire First Amendment is the ultimate protection of personal liberty that existed at the time it was written; its context and meaning must be maintained if we are to remain a nation of free peoples.

Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

The second freedom that the First Amendment deals with is at the heart of what Benjamin Franklin saw as the epitome of a free people – the right to freely exchange ideas.  From the time of the ascension of King George III as the sovereign of Great Britain, leaders in Parliament and the king believed that the British American colonists must be brought into the empire and integrated into proper British society.  Some historians argue that the Stamp Tax, designed to generate revenue by requiring all documents printed in the colonies to bear a stamp indicating that it was, indeed, a legally printed item.  This requirement included playing cards, legal documents, books, newspapers, and any other printed medium.  While it did generate some tax revenue, it is obvious that one of the side effects of the Stamp Act Tax was it could be used to differentiate between “legal” speech and “illegal” written speech.  It could be used to restrain or even curtail printed matter that was in opposition to the actions of the Crown and Parliament.  While under the guise of “freedom of expression,” the actual act of criminalizing the production of unauthorized publications would serve to censor the revolutionary thoughts of the day as their production would be greatly curtailed.  Without a single direct attack on the freedom of conscience, it would make written public dissent a crime to possess or to disseminate.

Earlier last week, I read an article that discusses the latest proposal by Senator Gloria Feinstein that would actually define who constitutes a journalist.  Within the definition of the proposed legislation, a journalist is defined, according to Watchdog.org as those who work as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information,” though students working for news outlets would similarly be covered.  The definition seems to leave out the new tide of bloggers and citizen journalists who thrive on the Internet.  The reason that there has never been a definition of what the press was or who should be considered as a journalist was not because newspapers did not exist, but because the British press had been under the influence of the Crown and Parliament, unable to legally publish articles critical of the imperial governance of British America.  Indeed, most of the articles published demanded that the Crown extract more control over the colonies and supported the Townshend duties, the Intolerable Acts, and the various Navigation Acts as being proper for subjects of the empire.  Had the monarchy had its way, the political theory espoused by Jefferson, Samuel and John Adams, Paul Revere, and Thomas Paine would never have been allowed to publish and disseminate their revolutionary rhetoric throughout the colonies.  Now comes Senator Gloria Feinstein and she is more than willing to do the job that Parliament and King George would have wanted to do.

Freedom of speech and the press are related and cannot be separated from one another.  It is why, from a grammatical frame of reference, there is a solitary comma to separate the two and not a semi-colon.  There is a relationship between the two liberties; the first phrase of the First Amendment clearly indicates that Congress does not have the authority to define or restrict through legislation the very concepts of freedom of speech or the press.  The free flow of ideas is paramount to the preservation of our very understanding of liberty.  In the past thirty years Americans have watched this very concept come under increasing attack. Beginning with the Adams administration, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed by overzealous Federalists in Congress and signed by President John Adams – at the heart of it was the desire to protect political power and to shield criticism of the Quasi-War with France.  Again, in World War I, freedom of speech and the press were attacked again when the Democrats in Congress and the Wilson administration passed and enacted the Sedition and Espionage Acts as a means to control the criticism of the president and the American war effort in Europe.

Continued on next page.

Alan Simmons

Alan Simmons is an adjunct instructor of history at Henderson Community College. He has been teaching at the college/university level since 2004. Within the scope of his degrees, his areas of emphasis are U.S. foreign policy, public policy history, political history, and U.S. history.

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