Thursday, March 8, 2007

The First Amendment Upside-Down

Everybody likes the First Amendment. It is a more versatile tool than anything advertised on any infomercial. You can make it mean anything you want! Take the "freedom of religion" part of it. When the framers of the constitution were bargaining over the final wording of the actual document, they felt it necessary to put this limitation on the federal government: "Congress shall make no law..." This phrase would be prevalent until the gross violations of the 14th amendment negated the first ten (but that's for another discussion some day). The fear of the states is that somehow the federal government would impose its own version of religious preference on the individual states. Thus the wording of the first amendment. Amazingly, that very amendment is now the means by which the federal government can impose its will on the states. Thus, if the entire Colorado legislature were to unanimously decide to post the Ten Commandments at the entrance of their own chamber, someone in Washington could override them all and take it down.

The worst thing about misinterpreting a law or freedom is that the distraction serves to take our eyes off the originally intended protections that were included in the provision in the first place.

Freedom of Speech is another example of a First Amendment freedom that has been set on its ear. Try to imagine how some people see our framers putting together this amendment:
  • Jefferson: "If we're not careful, someone is going to keep us from putting cuss words in books (they didn't have movies yet)"
  • Franklin: "We can't let that happen. It would destroy our freedom."
  • Paine: "You're all a bunch of *%^#$! idiots anyway."
  • Jefferson: "I see what you mean, Ben. We've got to protect Tom. While we're at it, let's include nudity and pornography, since these are guaranteed rights as well."

Hard as it may be to believe, none of them were thinking of indecent speech, pictures, or materials when the "freedom of speech" clause was added. They were coming off a time when, even in their own colonies, people had been limited in their opportunities to voice differing political opinions. Their heritage in England had been to be sent to the stocks when someone bad-mouthed the wrong noble. The writers of the 17th and 18th century had learned to carefully disguise their satirical remarks to avoid imprisonment and endangerment (Swift's Gulliver's Travels is not primarily about "tiny people," and Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was not aimed at children).

Our own forefathers wanted to see a guarantee to speak out politically, to speak against kings, presidents, congressmen, church officials, and employers. Surprisingly, the chief concern of the first amendment is the one that now gets the least protection. People lose jobs, churches lose tax deductions, and elected officials are censured for exercising the right that our forefathers had in mind. Every law that speaks against free political speech violates the actual intent of the first amendment.

Get it out of your minds that it has to do with internet porn, with R-rated movies, with wardrobe malfunctions at the Super Bowl, or with publicly-funded explicit and blasphemous paintings in art galleries. No one was thinking of these things on the day they penned the first amendment. They were thinking of the responsibility to examine and change one's own government and leaders. They were attempting to avoid totalitarianism.

What we have today, though, is a new type of totalitarianism. And along with it, we've got dirty movies and filthy books. Because somebody turned the first amendment upside-down.

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