“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.”
I like that this one is the very first. The founders had set out to establish a democratic republic, and perhaps the most important cornerstone to such an enterprise is this foundational freedom. It’s actually pretty sweeping for such an economy of words. Religious belief and practice, speech, the press, assembly, and redress of grievances are addressed all within a few lines. The amendment means that within the confines of our mind, we are completely free–without limits. The implications of our thoughts in our life’s actions and expression are also free.
While the freedom to think what we want is rather zealously guarded (hence the saying “Well, it’s a free country…”) the outward expression of our thoughts has often been naturally limited. Things like libel are prohibited, as are the practice of religious beliefs considered harmful to society or individuals (polygamy, child sacrifice, et al.). This makes sense, as far as it goes, though the range of interpretation for the First Amendment means that our society will be able to continually reinterpret exactly what such freedoms look like in the present.
Though all our constitutional amendments have the potential to be repealed if the nation so decides, some are so vital to the existence of the country that their deletion would be the end of the United States of America itself. The First Amendment is one of these, and I’m happy that it will be with us until the very end. Its perseverance means that the interpretation of this fundamental freedom will never be something that will be limited–or expanded–without an often rigorous fight about and discussion of what it means to be American citizen. Because it says we have such rights, we just have to deal with that. These continuing arguments–and our ability as Americans to have them–is what makes American democracy so annoying at times…but also so free.
(This entry is the first in a series of brief reflections on our country’s twenty-seven constitutional amendments. Stay tuned in coming weeks and months for more.)