The First Amendment: A Recap
A lot of people have been calling situations “violation[s] of our First Amendment rights” lately. From Chik-Fil-A supporters to anti-abortion activists, there’s been a lot of talk about the First Amendment of the Constitution. Most of these cries of “freedom” are completely misunderstanding the point of the Bill of Rights. So, here’s a recap.
The First Amendment provides protection for five areas: Speech, Religion, Petition (to the government), Press, and Assembly. Through legislation and litigation, these rights have been determined to be non-absolute. That is, speech is not 100% free, since speech can be used to undermine others’ rights.
This is where people start getting confused. The protection provided is simply FROM the government. That is, the Federal, state, or local governments cannot prevent a citizen from speech, so long as it doesn’t undermine another’s rights. The First Amendment has no bearing on the opinions of fellow citizens.
An example: Let’s say Bob cannot stand British people. He hates the British with a fiery passion. So he stands on his front porch and shouts, “The British are terrible! I hate the British! Down with the Queen!” This is perfectly legal. However, his neighbor, Mary, is an Anglophile. She walks up to Bob and says, “The British are amazing and you’re stupid for thinking otherwise!” This is also legal. If, however, Mary was a police officer on duty and arrested Bob for his anti-British comments, THAT would be a violation of his rights.
Let’s change the example a bit. Bob is the owner of a general store, and places a sign in his window that says “The British suck.” Provided that he does not deny service or employment to any British people, this is still legal. Now, Mary boycotts his store because of his anti-British sentiment. Everything about this is still legal. Boycotting falls under the First Amendment’s assembly provision, because it is a type of protest. She would also be legally allowed to write to her local representative to ask hir to shut down the store, although the representative would not be able to do so unless anti-British ACTION was taking place.
This is where hate speech comes into play, and it’s a gray area. Basically, hate speech is speech that incites discriminatory action. A preacher who says that gay people should be killed is guilty of hate speech. However, hate speech is not always illegal, and is still hotly debated in the courts.
So, let’s move onto religion. According to the Constitution, the government is not allowed to mandate an official religion, nor are they able to prevent people from practicing their religion. However, crime under the guise of religion (i.e. cult mass-murders, polygamy) is not protected by the First Amendment.
The current debate is whether or not mandated insurance coverage of birth control is a violation of the freedom of religion. It is not. Nowhere in this mandate does it require that people utilize birth control, which is against some religions. The options for individual religious expression is still fully in tact. On the contrary, if the government WERE to abolish birth control altogether, it would be implicit endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint, which would be establishment of a national religion.
I can go into depth about the other protections, but they’re pretty self-evident. I hope this clears up some confusion!
Note: I am not a lawyer or a Constitutional scholar. I am simply a young person who has taken several classes on U.S. politics and knows how to use Google.
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