OUR RIGHTS AS AMERICANS; DO THEY STILL HOLD TRUE?
The Declaration of Independence proclaimed separation from the King of England and contained the following statement: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. – July 4, 1776
The Constitution was ratified over a period of years, but implemented in 1789. The Constitution begins with “We the People…” signifying that our government is to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The first three articles addressed the separation of powers, establishing the Executive branch, the Legislative branch and the Judicial branch which includes the Supreme Court.
The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791 and contained the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Seventeen additional amendments have been added over the last 226 years.
Each amendment is important, but today I want to concentrate on the First amendment. It reads:
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.
This statement addresses two basic elements of our democracy, with the second one being broken into 4 parts:
1. The first element is the freedom of religion. In simple terms, it says that the government shall have no say in accepting or denying any religion, and cannot deny the rights of the people to choose their own religion and means of worship. It also does not declare any religion to be the dominate religion of America. Nor does it require that a citizen must adhere to any religion at all.
2. The second element is the freedom of speech in all its forms. To break this down to the simplest terms, consider a town square, or a large park with a raised platform, tree stump, etc. in it. (No doubt, one could stand on the ground, but then people might not be able to see as well.)
- Any person can climb up on that platform and speak his mind about any number of things. (Freedom of speech)
- People may freely gather around to listen, if they want to, and discuss. (Freedom of peaceable assembly)
- Any reporter may stand there and take notes or even ask questions, of the speaker or of the audience, and may then write or present his findings or interpretation to the public. (Freedom of the press)
- If the speaker, or any of his listeners decide that there is a problem that needs to be addressed, they can go to the government agency in charge of that particular faction and ask for an explanation and/or change of policy. (Freedom to petition the government)
While these rights are guaranteed in our constitution, there are some other rules of law that need to be considered. The following are legal exceptions to the freedoms listed above:
Slander: The utterance of false charges or misrepresentations which defame and damage another’s reputation. A false and defamatory oral statement about a person. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/slander
Defamation: The act of communicating false statements about a person that injure the reputation of that person. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/defamation
Libel: A written or oral defamatory or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression. A statement or representation published without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/libel
Notice the key words: false / misrepresentations / unjustly / without just cause. In other words, whatever is being said needs to have some facts to back it up, and cannot be used just to demean another person or entity. This not only holds true for the speaker, but for the press, as well. Libel deals, in particular, with written or published statements that are false.
Ever hear the expression, “give him an inch and he’ll take a mile”? It refers to people who take unreasonable advantage of some privilege, kindness or other allowance bestowed on them. Let’s say you loan someone a dollar. In a day or two, they return, asking to borrow another dollar, and promising to pay back both dollars later. In other words, they are abusing the kindness you showed them. Sometimes, that’s how people are with ‘rights’ as well. Just because we have a right to do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And even though the constitution gives us the right of free speech, it doesn’t mean a person has the right to say things that will incite a riot or a violent or destructive act.
In today’s world, we have all manner of speech and press. We have bill boards, murals, banners, signs, bumper stickers, newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, mail and even our phones. Some expressions of free speech are hanging on to that definition by a thread… things like sculptures, paintings, sketches, tattoos, and even clothing. Jokes are even considered freedom of speech. There has always been, and probably will always be, arguments over where freedom of speech or expression leaves off and becomes indecency. Indecency is described as morally offensive, especially in a sexual way; also, morally wrong and evil. An extreme example; exposing one’s genitals randomly to the public is not freedom of expression.
Cursing, insulting, degrading, and name-calling are not necessarily against the law, however, in some circumstances they can be. In any event, they will never resolve any issues at all, and only tend to inflame the situation. Verbal bullying usually includes one or more l of those behaviors. With young people, cyber-bullying has driven more than one student to commit suicide. Young people are often insecure, not sure where they fit. Bullying drives them into despair and depression. There have been conversations on how to control this kind of thing without infringing on everyone’s right to free speech. So far, no solution has been reached.
The arguments about freedoms are not particularly partisan arguments, but more a general disagreement about degrees. One group may feel that freedom of speech is being abused when speakers are invited to a closed event, such as a graduation, and that speaker talks against the very ideals and values the school advocates. This happened in May at Notre Dame. But other people at that event felt the speaker should be heard, precisely because of freedom of speech rights. Another situation might be during a protest. Most people agree that protesting is part of the democratic process and signs and messages shouldn’t be censored. But the degree of incendiary shouts and slogans becomes a problem. As in most large groups, a small percentage of participants will usually get carried away and step beyond the proverbial line. Sometimes it’s verbal, where frustrations boil over and words become hate-filled or racially charged. Is there a place where the right to free speech should not include the right to ridicule and belittle others? Or should freedom of speech extend into dangerous behaviors like setting bonfires, or throwing objects at each other? If I say, “we must fight for this cause!” does that mean to literally fight, with fists or weapons? Should a crush of protestors charge into a school or business, disregarding the safety of people inside? For that matter, should protesting be our first method of resistance or complaint?
On one hand, we don’t want to over-regulate, as each situation differs from the next. We shouldn’t ban all protests because one protest became a riot. But on the other hand, we also can’t condone riots and looting, property damage and vandalism. Where do we draw the line between the rights of freedom and the human rights of safety for property and self? I would love to hear the thoughts, ideas, or concerns of my readers on this!
The last concern I want to address is freedom of religion. This is a tough topic, because many of us look at religion as a moral standard. There are groups and cults who claim religion, but are not about religion in the accepted definition. A religion is a cultural belief system that is intended to lead its followers in a defined lifestyle, and generally adheres to some form of worship for some form of God. It is possible to be religious without belonging to a religion – that is, to have a belief in a Superior Being and follow the tenents of Biblical law, such as the 10 commandments or the golden rule.
As in most things in life, there are degrees of religious belief and behavior. The range is wide, from non-believers (atheists) to skeptics (agnostics), from devout to zealots. And there are around 5,000 religions (or more accurately, religious sects) to choose from, world-wide. Currently, many Americans want to identify as a Christian nation. But the truth is, there are a variety of Christian denominations, and they don’t always see eye to eye, either. Overall, the United States has approximately 50 active religions. A recent ABC poll found that 13% of Americans claim no religion. 83% claim Christianity, including Catholics, Protestants (of whom, 19% are non-affiliated with a particular denomination), Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 4% stated other, including Judaism, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhism. However, this is an ever-changing dynamic. For more than 200 years we’ve been able to live together on this continent and accept each other. Each era brought some bias regarding one religion or another, but for the most part, we’ve adapted.
The current concern is about Muslims or the religion of Islam. This has arisen from the fear of terrorism and the attack on America in 2001 from terrorists claiming to embrace “radical Islam.” However, terrorism is not a religious tenent. We have had so-called Christian wars as well, but they, too, had little or nothing to do with religion. Wars are about money, property, greed and power. Our constitution gives complete freedom of religion. That includes Muslims. The worry over “Sharia Law”, which is taught in the Qu’ran, is much like laws in our Christian Bible from the Old Testament, where it says “an eye for an eye”, and that it is okay to kill your neighbor if he looks at your wife. You were also supposed to take your wife to a priest if she was pregnant and you suspected she had cheated on you. He would have her drink poison, and if it killed her and her baby, it was determined that she had indeed cheated. If, however, she and the baby survived, it indicated that she had remained faithful. The point here is that Sharia law is only a part of the Islamic teachings, and many Muslims no longer follow Sharia law to a point of killings or physical harm. If they do, they are subject to the laws of our government in the same way as you would be if someone poked your eye out and you went back and poked his eye out for revenge. Certainly, the individual states are struggling with how to set up laws that are fair to Americans while allowing as much religious freedom as possible. In the future, it may become necessary to make a federal law, or even an amendment to the constitution to address Sharia law while adhering to our constitutional right to freedom of religion. It is important to note that terrorism of any kind, for any reason, is not tolerated in the United States of America.Read More