How well do you know your First Amendment rights?

Matt Thompson over at Poynter Online has a great article up on the First Amendment and how little most journalists, let alone most Americans, understand it and the protections it offers. It is talked about often as can be seen by a simple Google search, but for all the talk going on it is widely misunderstood and over 34% of people polled in the 2003 First Amendment Center survey said it “goes too far” in the freedoms it provides. Thompson’s article selects seven newspaper articles covering a week’s time to illustrate the five freedoms the First Amendment provides. Speaking of which, can you name all five freedoms ensured by the First Amendment?

They are the rights of Press, Religion, Assembly, Petition, and Speech.

Most folks can rattle off the press and religion and maybe the speech one, but the assembly and petition rights are the ones that actually bring about change. Here is a bit on the news item that illustrates the religious freedom portion of the First Amendment:

Poynter Online – A Week in the Life of the First Amendment

Tuesday, October 7, 2003: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports a Supreme Court action allowing a Tacoma Bible club to use public school resources to “evangelize (its) campus for Jesus Christ” and “teach students that Jesus Christ is the Answer to the confusion, pain, and uncertainty this world offers.” In this case, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Ninth Circuit Court had previously been pegged by many as anti-religious after it ruled the Pledge of Allegiance unconstitutional for its inclusion of the words “under God.”

One might think the Ninth Circuit Court waffled on its interpretation of the First Amendment by supporting a religious student group in a public school while striking down the mention of God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Actually, the court’s decision stipulated that while a government body cannot instruct students to recite a religious Pledge, public schools also cannot specially restrict the activity of religious student groups as compared to secular groups.

In fact, the courts have been more protective of students’ religious freedoms than many acknowledge, Paulson said:

    I think there is a tremendous misperception about the exercise of religion in public schools. For example in applying the religious freedom clause, courts have, in fact, expanded religious liberty for students in every public school in this country. You can have Bible study classes after school. Students can witness to each other during the lunch (hour), and they can carry the Bible around along with the rest of their school books.

By playing up controversial court decisions such as Alabama’s Ten Commandments case and the Pledge of Allegiance ruling, Paulson said, the media reveals a tendency to focus on the “heat of First Amendment controversies and not provide the light.”

“Would people be as angry about a federal court striking down the Pledge of Allegiance as a violation of (the separation of) church and state,” Paulson asked, “if they knew that Ņ the reference to ‘under God’ has only been around for 50 years, and was expressly introduced by the Eisenhower administration at the height of the Red Scare?”

The whole article is an excellent read and highly recommended. In addition to illustrating the different freedoms protected by the First Amendment and the misunderstandings that sometimes surround them it also contains links to excellent articles on things such as Slate’s guide to the Patriot Act.

In fact, Thompson’s article was good enough to even change my mind about the National Do Not Call List as it currently stands. It is a violation of the right to free speech because it only targets one type of telemarketing call (commercial) while still allowing other types to continue (charity and political). Given that, it shouldn’t be allowed to stand in its current form as it could be very easily fixed to make it pass Constitutional muster and would probably make people even happier in the process by giving them choices. Go read the article to see what the solution is.

3 thoughts on “How well do you know your First Amendment rights?

  1. Great article.  I also agree on your comment about the Do Not Call registry.  I said the same thing to people once I got more details on what the fight is in court.  I was then pissed at the politicians who are willing to forego the first ammendment just so they can pass a popular law.

  2. While I agree that the Do Not Call registry is unconstitutional because of the focus on disallowing commercial calls only I will also state that as far as I am concerned I do not want ANY solicitation of ANY sort be it political, charitable, or commercial.

    My biggest issue is with the reasoning by those that are against a Do Not Call list because it is infringing on their free speech rights – is that they are only able to exercise those ‘rights’ because I purchased a telephone and am paying for phone service on a monthly basis. Just because I own a phone does that imply that I am now asking for unsolicited calls from anyone with their hand out, a political or religious agenda, or in need of filling a sales quota? If you say yes then maybe you want to consider that your house also has a door but the same people who are allowed to intrude on your time via the telephone are not allowed to walk into your house by breaking down your door.

    When does their freedom of speech begin to intrude on my freedom from it…in my own home?

  3. That’s the point, though, as it currently stands the Do Not Call Registry does infringe on their right to free speech because it’s selective in what it restricts. That being only one form of unpopular speech: commercial calls.

    If the law were changed so that it banned all forms of telephone solicitations if you’re on the list then it would be Constitutionally sound. Better yet, as the article suggests, the Do Not Call Registry could be changed so that the consumer has a choice whether to ban one, two, or all three forms of telemarketing calls and it would still be Constitutionally sound while allowing the telephone owner to decide which, if any, telemarketing calls get through.

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