First Amendment secures five freedoms
In only 45 words, James Madison outlined the core freedoms now guaranteed citizens of the United States that continue to make our country a beacon to those throughout the world seeking the chance to be all they want to be.
Yet, 39 percent of Americans cannot name one of the freedoms delineated by the First Amendment, according to a survey conducted in 2009 by the First Amendment Center located at Vanderbilt University.
That statistic is an incredible testament to the proposition that we take for granted the five freedoms we enjoy when examples of that freedom are before us on a daily basis.
‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; ‘ ‘
In 1771, 20 years before the Bill of Rights containing the First Amendment was ratified, the State of Virginia jailed 50 Baptist worshipers for preaching the gospel contrary to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Today, you can find congregations representing more than 90 different organized religious belief systems in Indianapolis simply by browsing the Yellow Pages.
‘ ‘ or abridging the freedom of speech, ‘ ‘
In 1735, New York publisher John Peter Zenger was tried for libel after publishing criticism of the Royal Governor of New York. Today, Seymour-born John Mellencamp has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with biting social commentary found in songs such as ‘Rain on the Scarecrow’ or ‘Jim Crow.’
‘ ‘ or of the press; ‘ ‘
Seven years after the passage of the First Amendment in 1791, newspaper editor Benjamin Franklin Bache, the grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was arrested under the Sedition Act for ‘libeling’ President John Adams. Today, nearly 200 Indiana newspapers are published each week, containing stories, editorials or letters to the editor critical of local, statewide or national governmental agencies or elected officials.
‘ ‘ or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, ‘ ‘
In the 1950s, police in several Southern states used fire hoses, dogs and clubs to break up peaceful Civil Rights marches. Today, leaders of Indianapolis’ black community hold a press conference with no fear of retribution to request a federal investigation into the injuries a black teenager suffered during an arrest by local police.
‘ ‘ and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.’
In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Terre Haute-born socialist and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs under the Espionage Act for making speeches opposing World War I. Today, environmentalists are free to seek a halt to the building of Interstate 69 through Southern Indiana through protest, press releases or letters and e-mail to Gov. Mitch Daniels or the state legislature.
Students at all levels should be exposed to the 45-word First Amendment, not as a exercise of rote memory, but as a starting point for discussions on topics such as religious tolerance, checks and balances on government power, the impact speech can have at the personal and national level, civic engagement and the danger inherent when people fail to get involved either at the local, state or national level.