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. — The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me. – Pastor Martin Niemöller
The First Amendment has been a bulwark of American society since its inception. It was established in 1791 because the citizens demanded a guarantee of their basic freedoms. If you have the desire, you can read through all of the battles the First Amendment has been through since it was established. I found it a fascinating read, much too detailed to go into here. You can find a great site, which highlights both the First Amendment’s gains and losses throughout the centuries here: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/first-amendment-timeline
I will be the first to say that I struggle with the First Amendment when I find myself disagreeing with the decision of the courts on certain issues. Are there things I wish to be outlawed because it is indecent or doesn’t coincide with my beliefs? The answer is yes.
Still, at the end of the conversation, I think that in order for the First Amendment to act without prejudice toward the issues I support, it also has to act without prejudice toward the issues I vehemently disagree with.
If you read through the timeline, you will see that the First Amendment has been molded and shaped in many different ways. It is definitely the case with regards to religion.
From the 1771 jailing of 50 Baptist worshipers for preaching the Gospel contrary to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer in the state of Virginia, to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a state-composed, non-denominational prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in 1962, to the 2011 decision in Snyder v. Phelps, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Westboro Baptist Church’s protest at the funeral of slain Marine Matthew Snyder was protected by the First Amendment, religion has been a contentious issue since the formation of the United States of America.
So when I read an opinion piece by a professor at the University of Chicago Law School titled, “The World Doesn’t Love the First Amendment,” I pause to read and reflect on what the author has to say.
This is the summation of his opinion piece; “…Americans need to learn that the rest of the world—and not just Muslims—see no sense in the First Amendment. Even other Western nations take a more circumspect position on freedom of expression than we do, realizing that often free speech must yield to other values and the need for order.”
Ok. So let’s look at where yielding to other values have taken the rest of the world.
In regards to freedom of religion: a Pew study found that, ‘In the one-year period ending in mid-2010, 75 percent of the world’s population lived in a nation with high or very high restrictions on religious beliefs or practices.’ Unfortunately, the US found a 1% increase in the restriction of our own freedom.
If you look at this graph, you will find that religious persecution is a very serious issue. http://www2.macleans.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/Religious-Freedoms-Graphic.png Travel to a place like Afghanistan and you could find yourself hung for blasphemy. It is the same with Pakistan and others. It seems all too clear that a lack of freedom of speech and religion can lead to danger for those with opposing viewpoints.
The ultimate dilemma of negating the First Amendment is; who decides what truth is? Who decides what decent speech is, or what can and cannot be said?
This may sound harsh, but the rest of the world really does not have the right to dictate what the United States can say or do. The people clammoring for us to clamp down on our freedoms in reality want freedom from being offended, which isn’t possible. If we limit one groups’ right to free speech, then the door is swung wide for anyone to find offense with another’s speech or religion. No matter your argument, no one is safe from religious persecution or government interference. It would apply to books, television, films and on and on. There would be no arbitrary judge that would be able to define an invisible line.
You cannot argue that there can be clear guidelines for ‘civil discourse’ when censor laws are in place because what one person considers blasphemous another considers religious truth. Only a free arena of expression, including what one may find offensive, ensures people remain free to pursue truth. It is not the government’s role to determine that.
It is because of our freedom that groups like Muslim Background Believers have a place to meet and worship together. Take a look at this list of just some of the groups in the US that defend religious freedom: http://religiousfreedom.lib.virginia.edu/relfreeorg/ I cannot say that I agree with some of these organizations; American Atheists for instance, but I believe that our constitution and Bill of Rights guarantees them the freedom to exist.
If by the end of this, you are still sputtering about being civil and how tyrannical the United States is, then perhaps you may want to consider this quote from Noam Chomsky, who is known, among other things, for his political criticisms as well as for having anarchist tendencies; “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.” – Noam Chomsky, linguist, political writer, 1992
Or this one, “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” – George Washington
And in the meantime;
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” – 2 Timothy 4:1-4