“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.”
Boy, that’s a mouthful, ain’t it? And it covers so much ground in so little space. Enough ground to keep us arguing over exactly what even one clause means over two hundred years later, and there are three distinct clauses that cover three, arguably very different, aspects of life. So why do all of these fall in the same amendment? And what does it all mean, anyway?
For me personally, it’s not just a matter of “these are the most important things, so let’s put them all first.” The entirety of the Bill of Rights was adopted at the same time, so there’s no reason to say any one amendment is more important than the others, and it’s kind of curious to try to mash together a bunch of unrelated ideas and hope they hold together (unless you think the Founding Fathers were the world’s first DJs. Come to think of it… dibs on that name.) There’s a common thread there, if you look past the surface and consider what the purpose of each of those acts is, and what their deeper meaning is and was at the time of the founding of our country.
I believe the First Amendment is about freedom of thought and the expression thereof. To be able to think or believe something is essentially meaningless in a society without the legal capability to express that belief, and each of those clauses covers one of the primary means by which people of the time communicated with each other. Whether from the pulpit or in the pews, by voice or the printed page, or even simply gathering in the town square and letting their voices be heard, these were the ways that people could let their thoughts and beliefs be known. So what are the implications for our modern society of that interpretation?
For starters, I believe that a strict literalist reading is just silly. To restrict the realm of free speech only to the items identified by a two hundred year old document is to assume that not only were the Founding Fathers great authors and statesmen, they were also prognosticators able to see the advances of technology yet to come and said, “Verily, that internet looks most interesting, but mayhap we best restrict the freedom of expression only to those technologies that exist in our day and age, lest we somehow bungle the whole experiment. Harrumph, harrumph.” (Because that’s exactly how they talked.)
Next, note that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion“. That means that any law like prayer in schools, hanging of Commandments, or anything else that is an official state recognition of religion is out. This also covers pathetic dodges like attempting to make religious shrines “secular” monuments. By the same token, any attempt to restrict people from “the free exercise thereof” is also banned, so stopping folks from displaying a manger scene on their own property is as unconstitutional as banning a sign that says “God hates fags.” You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but it cuts both ways. That’s the way I read it.
Also, while it’s been said before, I think it’s worth noting and reinforcing that the First Amendment is not there to protect popular speech. That’s easy; if the majority of people like what you have to say or believe, and in particular if the people who trod the halls of power are comfortable with what you are saying and how you say it, then you have nothing to fear in terms of what you say or do being restricted. It is the unpopular speech, the vile speech, the speech we would prefer not to have to endure in our comfortable lives that most needs protection. Whether it is jerks who claim military service they never gave or idiots who deny the Holocaust, we need to protect and allow all speech. Let us not forget that there was a time in our country’s history when speaking out against slavery, or in favor of equal treatment for people of all ethnicities or genders, was equally offensive in polite society and the halls of power.
Finally, and this is the big one, expression is merely the final extension of thought. To give freedom of expression without freedom of thought is like saying “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” (thank you Henry Ford.) Being given the choice between “yes” and “yes, please” is no choice at all. Likewise, hate crime legislation is wrong on two points: first, it presumes we can know the true thoughts and motivations of another person. Honestly, I don’t know why I do the shit I do half the time. I’m supposed to understand why other people do things? And even if I did, the First Amendment gives us the right to believe what we want. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to agree with it. If the way someone expresses those beliefs is a crime, then let them be punished in accordance with the crime they committed, but not for the thoughts in their head.
Unless we’re okay with making thoughts a crime.