Guest blog post by Genie Gannett, granddaughter of former Portland Press Herald owner, and president & co-founder of the First Amendment Museum. This article was originally published in the Portland Press Herald on May 1, 2021.
Many Americans can’t name the five freedoms this amendment guarantees: the freedoms of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly and government petition.
Recent months have shown that the phrase “free speech” is often misunderstood. Americans generally know about the First Amendment, but most cannot name the five freedoms it guarantees – the freedoms of religion, speech, press, peaceful assembly, and government petition.
Through my work with the First Amendment Museum in Augusta, I’ve encountered many people who do not know how to put their First Amendment rights into real, concrete practice. Here are five examples of living your freedoms:
HOSTING A FAMILY DINNER
When I was growing up, my family sat down for dinner together every single evening. It was during those family dinners that we had our most robust, informative conversations, touching on politics, religion and everything in between. From a young age, I learned how to express myself and listen to others, in case I might learn something. And I often did.
While family dinners are less common nowadays, they represent a comforting example of lively discourse. We can learn a lot from our family members, with the tool of free speech in our toolbox.
GETTING A LIBRARY CARD
Of course, there’s more to learning than just eating with the family. Even the simple act of obtaining a library card and roaming the stacks of books reinforces the pivotal role that free expression has played throughout human history. Libraries are filled with thousands of books on a wide range of topics, but that would never be possible if the writers couldn’t express themselves freely.
Now, we can all reap the benefits of their speech, using it to elevate our own knowledge in many different ways. As the French philosopher Rene Descartes once said, “The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.”
USING SOCIAL MEDIA
Perhaps the most popular form of free expression today is social media. Whether you’re using Facebook, Twitter or something else, technology has gifted us with unprecedented platforms, which can be used to engage with and contact millions of people around the world.
We can not only post whatever we want (for better or worse), but we can also learn from all sorts of interesting people – from family and friends to “influencers” overseas. Even clicking “send” on a single tweet is an example of the First Amendment at work.
GOING TO CHURCH
While the First Amendment is most commonly associated with free speech, there are four other freedoms:
“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.”
For example, freedom of religion is what enables millions and millions of Americans to attend church, synagogue, mosque or other house of worship. Whatever your religion, it is American for you to be able to worship as you choose, without government interference. From Christianity to Pastafarianism, which is the worship of the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” (yes, it’s real), we all have the freedom to get in touch with the divine.
PROTESTING – PEACEFULLY
The First Amendment also affords us with another freedom: “The right of the people peaceably to assemble.”
And Americans are living it now more than ever. Last year, as many as 26 million people joined the Black Lives Matter protests after the tragic deaths of George Floyd and other African Americans. They took to the streets, marching, mourning and advocating for change. This also happened during an election year, which saw tens of millions of Democrats and Republicans mobilize on behalf of their respective candidates.
And it was all possible because freedom includes the right to peaceably assemble. Emphasis on the word “peaceably”: Americans can and should assemble nonviolently, without any rioting, looting and other forms of violence.
So get out there and live your five freedoms! As Americans, the best way to show gratitude for the First Amendment is by exercising it in our daily lives.
Learn more about the Gannett Family, as well as Genie Gannett and the rest of the First Amendment Museum board.