Don’t Know Much About the First Amendment: A Civics Primer

Who is the Vice President? How many Senators are there? How many Supreme Court Justices?

A new online survey suggests many Americans can’t answer those Civics 101 questions. That is a point underscored in a New York Times Week in Review article yesterday that points out how many Americans don’t know what the First Amendment says. Two of them, sad to say, are Senate candidates in Delaware where Republican Christine O’Donell and her Democratic rival Chris Coons had trouble sorting out the fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

To me, this is not only sad but dangerous, especially with Election Day a week away. But this sorry state also constitutes a “teachable moment.”

So, in my ongoing effort to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness, here begins a Civics Primer on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and a few other basic things we all “need to know” about American History. This Civics Class will offer some of the fundamental facts about American History and government, including the fact that Electoral College is NOT a Party School.

I am going to start with the First Amendment as it is so prominently in the headlines. I will continue this series in the days and weeks ahead until ahead until we all get it right –or you can turn in your passport.

First, a little background about the Supreme Law of the Land — the Constitution and the changes that have been made to it.

The U.S. Constitution was drafted during the summer of 1787 in Philadelphia where the Declaration of Independence had been written and adopted eleven years earlier. Under the new Constitution,  the first Congress, meeting in New York City on September 25, 1789, submitted twelve proposed changes to the Constitution—called articles or amendments—for ratification by the states. These amendments dealt with certain individual and states’ rights not specifically named in the Constitution. Ten of these articles, which were originally proposed as Amendments Three through Twelve, were declared ratified in 1791 and are now known as Amendments One through Ten, or the Bill of Rights.

Since 1791, another seventeen changes have been made to the Constitution, a process that begins when Congress proposes an amendment, which must clear both the House and the Senate by a two-thirds majority. The proposed amendment is sent to the states for ratification. Three quarters of the states are needed to ratify, and that is usually done by state legislatures.

Here is the First Amendment. And it should be clear to everyone why this one comes first–

Amendment One

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 guarantees five fundamental American freedoms:

-Religion: Prohibits the establishment of religions by government and guarantees freedom of religion. One of the only restraints on religion permitted is on a practice that may endanger the physical health of citizens; for instance, courts have allowed medical treatment of children against their parents’ religious beliefs.

(For more background on the road that led Madison to the First Amendment, see my  Smithsonian article on the history of religious intolerance in America.)

-Speech: Guarantees that government cannot limit speech with certain exceptions established over the years by the Courts, such as slanderous or obscene speech. Of course, private companies and employers can limit the speech of their employees, which is why National Public Radio can fire Juan Williams for breaching their code of conduct for reporters and commentators.

-Press: Guarantees freedom of the press from government interference, including college publications (but not public high school students). This freedom applies to books, magazines, and most television and radio programs (although the Federal Communications Commission is able to limit broadcasts under its licensing powers– hence a “wardrobe malfunction” is not protected “speech.)

-Assembly: Guarantees the right to assemble peaceably, which includes picketing, a right that that has been at the core of political, labor and civil rights disputes. In general, picketing is protected  when it is for a lawful purpose and is orderly.

-Petition: Guarantees the right to petition government, a protection best exemplified by the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence.

There you go. Five Easy pieces– Fundamental Freedoms you can count on one hand.

Next: The Second Amendment

And by the way:  the Answers are Joe Biden, one hundred Senators (two from each state) and nine Justices.