I don’t know about you, but this election season it’s been driving me crazy whenever presidential candidates or their supporters accuse each other of ignoring the Constitution or promising to stand for the Constitution in ads and stump speeches but then support proposals or policies which are diametrically opposed to Constitutional principles or worse, flagrantly violate people’s Constitutional rights.
So if you’ve got a minute, here’s a quick review of some of your Constitutional rights as explained by an Eighth grade Civics teacher. Now, if you don’t trust me or come to this blog with your own set of political perceptions, by all means, I urge you to read the amendments for your self- here’s a convenient link to let you do so.
Two quick things before we begin- Let’s face it, people of good conscience are allowed to disagree; keep in mind at all times that individual voters, politicians, their parties, Constitutional law professors and the U.S. Supreme Court all have different interpretations of all of these rights and amendments. Also it’s important to remember that Amendments ARE part of the Constitution. To amend is to alter or change, so when we’re talking about the amendments we’re talking about Constitutional rights, not something separate or different or in addition to the Constitution, this stuff IS the Constitution.
- The 1st Amendment- includes freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly & petition
- Lots of people get confused by the religion part, perhaps because it’s so important or perhaps because everyone seems to not want others to tell them what they should believe but at the same time everyone also seems to want to tell everyone else what they should believe. It’s a control issue. Here’s how it breaks down:
- The “Establishment Clause” says that the government is not allowed to endorse any one religion over another. There is no official religion of America. Taxes don’t pay to to support churches and public schools aren’t supposed to take advantage of their captive audiences to try to convert their students. After eons of religious wars in England and Europe, Americans thought they might give pluralism a try. So in a way, there is freedom from religion.
- The “Free-Exercise Clause” on the other hand says that the government may not prevent you from believing what you believe, how you believe it or exercising your faith whenever, wherever, however. I tell students to feel free to discuss their faith and even to pray, I just can’t initiate or lead the prayer since I’m a public school teacher and just like any other topic, if I try to facilitate the discussion, it’s just going to be to make sure it’s pertinent to what we’re learning about and doesn’t pose a substantial disruption. The establishment clause doesn’t preclude the exercise clause and vice versa.
- Like all the other rights I’m about to talk about, the best way to protect your rights is to protect the rights of others. If as a Lutheran. Methodist or a Catholic, I don’t want Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, 7th day Adventists or Mormons telling me I have to believe everything they believe, I kinda have to allow Jews, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists, Muslims, Amish, secularists, atheists, agnostics, Wiccans, and even Satanists to believe what they want to believe. That’s the hard thing about living in a pluralistic society. As a Christian myself, I tend to lean on Jesus’ parable of the weeds and wheat growing in the same field (see Matthew 13:24-30) to help me with this one. Like so many other things in life, it’s all about control, I don’t want you trying to control me, so I guess I’m better off not trying to control you. If I really believe God is in control, does He really need my help? See, that whole omnipotent thing kinda puts me in my place… anyway-
- Freedom of Speech- does not mean say whatever you want, however you want to whomever you want whenever you want. The First Amendment does not protect you from the consequences of your tactlessness and it can’t protect you in a civil suit if you’re accused of slander (deliberately spreading lies about someone in order to hurt their reputation). However, it DOES mean, that you ARE free to speak your mind on political, social, economic, cultural and religious matters without fear of being locked up, exiled, or otherwise punished or persecuted by the government. We ARE allowed to criticize public figures and officials and their positions, policies, and programs. We’re not necessarily allowed to incite violence or bully or harass people.
- BTW FYI over the last couple hundred years the Supreme Court has really expanded “Speech” into “Freedom of Expression,” so yard signs, bumper stickers, hair styles, music, piercings, tattoos, clothing, holiday decorations on your house, yadda yadda yadda pretty much all covered.
- ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM- Campaign finance reform, Political Action Committees (PACs) and Super Paces, & “Dark Money”- in 2010 the U.S. Supreme Court Case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court declared that money IS speech and that corporations are at least “associations of citizens” so Republican candidate Mitt Romney wasn’t just talking out of his a** (pardon my French) when he told one voter at the Iowa State Fair back in 2012 that “corporations ARE people, my friend.” The problem with this decision is that while at one level it is logical to conclude that campaign contributions are a way of expressing one’s beliefs and therefore protected by the First Amendment, it ought to be glaringly obvious to anyone that some people have a helluva lot more freedom of speech then others making this decision horrifically unfair to the vast majority of Americans. Meanwhile state governors like Minnesota’s Scott Walker and others work to revoke collective bargaining rights of public employees and undermine unions so that wealthy investors have power in numbers through corporate investing or interest groups, but most poor, working class and middle class people don’t have the means to pool their resources. Sorry for being so blatantly nonobjective on this one, I hope that even if you disagree with obvious bias, I’ve helped explain the controversy with ‘Citizens United’ a little.
- Freedom of the Press- This is incredibly important not just so that we have the right to publish what we think, feel & believe, but perhaps even more importantly, so that we can have access to a variety of ideas and opinions. Mark Twain once said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” One might paraphrase this today to say that the person who only gets their news from one news source (say a TV network) but refuses to listen to any other outlets and doesn’t want to be bothered by looking up anything to read about the issues is pretty much allowing themselves to be brainwashed. Oh, um, sorry, got a little carried away there. Got that subjective momentum going in the last paragraph and it can be hard to turn off. Point is this- in a participatory representative democracy like ours, voters need to be informed in order to make the best decisions. If you have a vast buffet in front of you but all you eat are hot dogs, you’ll end up malnourished.
- PS- Time and technology have probably evolved this right as much as the Supreme Court has. Let’s face it, in 1791 freedom of the press was for publishers who ran printing presses. Today we generally assume that “the Press” is synonymous with the media. But these days all of us are self- publishing every time we blog, micro-blog, comment, post and perhaps even when we text and email.
- Freedom peaceably to assemble- Like speech and press, this has been expanded to mean freedom of association. In other words, it’s not just about attending a protest march or a sit-in. It also means belonging to a union, a political party, a movement, a special interest group, caucus, club, organization or religion. So as a matter of fact, as much as some of us may not like it, Americans DO have the right to be Communist, or Muslim or White supremacist. The Tea Party, the #OccupyWallStreet and the #BlackLivesMatter movements are all covered by this right, but so are the NRA, the AARP, the NAACP, and the 4-H and FFA.
- And finally the right to petition the government for redress of grievances– These words are eighteenth century legal jargon that in plain 21st century English mean to ask the government to help make things right. Petition= to ask or request. Redress=”to correct (something that is unfair or wrong*).” Grievance= feeling like you’ve been treated unfairly. (*see http://www.merriam-webster.com).
- More bias on my part- it’s pretty hard to ask the government to help you if you dismantle that government. I agree to a degree with limited government, but I don’t agree with eliminating it or making it so powerless that it can’t help you. A lot of politicians use fear to get us to vote for them. Not just fear of terrorists, but fear of the government, as if it is an entity unto itself and that entity is our greatest enemy. But WE are our government- thus the words ‘We the People.’ Government itself is an instrument, apparatus, infrastructure- a TOOL for people to collectively work together toward common goals. That’s why I get irritated when politicians tell us that you can’t trust government- they’re saying that they don’t trust US! Don’t they agree with President Lincoln that government is OF the people, BY the people, and FOR the people?
- So BEWARE most of the time when people start talking loudly about the Constitution, they actually would be opposed to the Constitution if the Constitutional Convention were held today. Whether it’s to protect corporations & the wealthy from regulation, promote what they see as states rights or personal liberty or justify their latent bigotry- most of them could actually be classified as anti-federalists or even pro confederacy. Maybe they even THINK that they support the United States or the Constitution, but anyone who is opposed to equality, civil rights or social contract theory are actually opposed to the most basic Constitutional principled. It may be hyperbole to accuse them of treason or even of lying- but I think that when they tout their allegiance to and reliance on the Constitution, as Inigo Montoya in the ‘Princess Bride’ might say, “you keep on using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.” Frankly, if they’re opposed to Constitutional principles, I wish they’d just own that and be honest with themselves and the rest of us about it.
Once again, my “quick” examination has gotten a lot longer than I intended (and this time, WAY more opinionated that I had intended) be that as it may, I hope it’s gotten you thinking about some of the things that politicians claim to be talking about, when they pretend to be upholders of the Constitution. Next time, Amendments 2-26.