The First Amendment

Lately in the US, between the fight for marriage equality and the responses to the murders of unarmed citizens by the police and the mass murders, there seems to be some confusion about what the First Amendment means.

The text:

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.

So, what does this actually mean? What’s the scope?

The First Amendment to the Constitution is part of The Bill of Rights. To protect themselves from the tyranny of prior rule, the new citizens of the United States wanted to protect themselves from being forced to practice any particular religion and to have the right to practice any religion they wanted, if they so chose. They wanted to be able to speak freely about their ideas without fear of punishment. They wanted to be able to gather together and share those ideas. They wanted access to their government to correct problems.

But, there are obviously some limits on what the government can do. The first word of the Amendment tells you who is being prohibited from acting: Congress. “Congress shall make no law…” Later, the 14th Amendment made this applicable to the States and their governments.

People cite the First Amendment as their right to say things that a lot of people consider hateful. Christians use it to justify their discrimination against gay people, since it’s in the Bible that homosexuality is wrong (I don’t really see it) and they’re entitled to their religious beliefs.

A guy in Seattle was walking around with a Swastika armband. A friend posted the article and some comments popped up in defense of the guy and his right to wear the armband and that no one should be able to say anything nasty to him about it.

The First Amendment has very little to do with what individuals say to each other. The First Amendment is about the government and how it interacts with citizens.

Nothing in the First Amendment says anything about the inherent rightness of people’s statements nor about immunity from response to those protected statements. Put simply, just because you have the right to say whatever you want doesn’t mean that what you’re saying is right. If what you say is hateful, do not expect people to respond kindly. The fact that you think your statements are backed by Jesus or Allah or whoever doesn’t change that.

So, go ahead. Say whatever you want. But be prepared for the response.