The First Amendment

The First Amendment No other democratic society in the world permits personal freedoms to the degree of the United States of America. Within the last sixty years, American courts, especially the Supreme Court, have developed a set of legal doctrines that thoroughly protect all forms of the freedom of expression. When it comes to evaluating the degree to which we take advantage of the opportunity to express our opinions, some members of society may be guilty of violating the bounds of the First Amendment by publicly offending others through obscenity or racism. Americans have developed a distinct disposition toward the freedom of expression throughout history. The First Amendment clearly voices a great American respect toward the freedom of religion.

It also prevents the government from 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. Since the early history of our country, the protection of basic freedoms has been of the utmost importance to Americans. In Langston Hughes’ poem, Freedom, he emphasizes the struggle to enjoy the freedoms that he knows are rightfully his. He reflects the American desire for freedom now when he says, I do not need my freedom when I’m dead. I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

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He recognizes the need for freedom in its entirety without compromise or fear. I think Langston Hughes captures the essence of the American immigrants’ quest for freedom in his poem, Freedom’s Plow. He accurately describes American’s as arriving with nothing but dreams and building America with the hopes of finding greater freedom or freedom for the first time. He depicts how people of all backgrounds worked together for one cause: freedom. I selected Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a fictitious example of the evils of censorship in a world that is becoming illiterate.

In this book, the government convinces the public that book reading is evil because it spreads harmful opinions and agitates people against the government. The vast majority of people accept this censorship of expression without question and are content to see and hear only the government’s propaganda. I found this disturbing yet realistic. Bradbury’s hidden opposition to this form of censorship was apparent throughout the book and finally prevailed in the end when his main character rebelled against the practice of burning books. Among the many forms of protests are pickets, strikes, public speeches and rallies.

Recently in New Jersey, more than a thousand community activists rallied to draft a human budget that puts the needs of the poor and handicapped as a top priority. Rallies are an effective means for people to use their freedoms effectively to bring about change from the government. Freedom of speech is constantly being challenged as is evidenced in a recent court case where a Gloucester County school district censored reviews of two R-rated movies from a school newspaper. Superior Court Judge, Robert E. Francis ruled that the student’s rights were violated under the state Constitution.

I feel this is a major break through for students’ rights because it limits editorial control of school newspapers by educators and allows students to print what they feel is important. A newly proposed bill (A-557) would prevent school officials from controlling the content of student publications. Critics of the bill feel that student journalists may be too young to understand the responsibilities that come with free speech. This is a valid point; however, it would provide an excellent opportunity for them to learn about their First Amendment rights that guarantees free speech and freedom of the press. In his commencement address to Monmouth College graduates, Professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School defended the broad right to free speech. He stated, My message to you graduates is to assert your rights, to use them responsibly and boldly, to oppose racism, to oppose sexism, to oppose homophobia and bigotry of all kinds and to do so within the spirit of the First Amendment, not by creating an exception to it.

I agree that one should feel free to speak openly as long as it does not directly or indirectly lead to the harm of others. One of the more controversial issues was the recent 2 Live Crew incident involving obscenity in rap music. Their record, As Nasty as They Wanna Be, was ruled obscene in federal court. They were acquitted of the charges and quickly became a free speech martyr. Although many stores pulled the album, over two million copies sold as a result of the incident. I feel that in this case the principles of free speech have been abused because young children can purchase and listen to this obscene music.

The American flag, symbol of our country’s history and patriotism, has also become a topic of controversy. The controversy was over the right to burn the flag without punishment. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan offered the response that if there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the Government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable. Burning the flag is considered a form of symbolic speech and therefore is protected under the First Amendment. As in the 2 Live Crew case, I feel that we are protecting the wrong people in this case. The minority is given precedence at the sacrifice of the majority.

The book, American Voices, is a collection of essays on the freedom of speech and censorship. I chose to put this collection of essays into my book because they represent the strong central theme of freedom of expression as the cornerstone of American government, culture and life. Each essay strongly defends a case for free commercial speech. Each was generally in favor of fewer limitations on freedom of expression. The American voice on freedom has been shaped throughout the course of history by the initial democratic notions of the immigrants to the same desire for greater freedom that we have today.

The freedom of speech has constantly been challenged and will continue to be challenged in the future. It is important that we learn from the precedented cases of the past of our constitutionally protected rights so that in the future authority will not violate our freedoms or oppress our liberty. Ever since colonial times, the protection of personal freedoms in the United States has been significantly important. Even in the early stages of American history there was an urge to put legally protected freedoms into written government documents. The result was the drafting of the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, by James Madison.

The applications of the personal freedoms described in the Bill of Rights, particularly the freedom of speech, have been challenged repeatedly in American courts of law and elsewhere. These incidents and challenges of authority reflect the defensive American attitude toward the ever important freedom of expression and the growing significance of personal rights throughout American history. In Colonial America, members of diverse nationalities had opposing views on government, religion, and other subjects of interest. Serious confrontations were prevented because of the vast lands that separated groups of varying opinions. A person could easily settle in with other like believers and be untouched by the prejudices and oppression of others.

For this reason, Unitarians avoided Anglican or Puritan communities. Quakers and Anabaptists were confined to Pennsylvania and Rhode …

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