On December 15, 1791, the Second Congress of the United States officially adopted the first ten amendments to the Constitution – the Bill of Rights – which protect our core freedoms. Beginning in 1789 when they were introduced by Congressman James Madison, the amendments were vigorously debated and eventually ratified by eleven of the fifteen states.
The Bill of Rights is a tool to reign in government power. As its Preamble states, its purpose is “….to prevent misconstruction or abuse of [the government’s] powers…,“ and to “… best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.” Today, we often think of the Bill of Rights as a list of things the government allows us to do. In fact, it is a list of things the government cannot do. And paramount among the many things the government has no business interfering with are the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment.
Those freedoms—religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition—were bundled together very purposefully. Together, they represent the means by which people have ideas, share ideas, and transform those ideas into reality. The freedom of (and from) “religion” was understood by 18th century statesmen to encompass the freedom of unimpeded belief or thought. Madison called that “liberty of conscience” in a prior draft. Free thoughts, expressed with free speech, disseminated by a free press, debated and developed by free assemblies of other free thinkers, may eventually be pressured into legislative action through the process of petition.
That process of changing an idea into an action is what enables our society to evolve.
The five freedoms of the First Amendment also empower our individualism and allow the fringes of society to flourish, for good or ill. No one’s idea is too far-fetched to be shared, no speech too horrible to utter (unless it presents an imminent threat to the physical safety of others). No media source can be shut down for publishing controversial opinions or scandalous stories, or for speaking truth to power, or for holding the government accountable. No lawful peaceful gatherings can be forcibly disbanded – whether by vigilantes or the authorities; and no opinion can be declared an unlawful cause to petition the government to pay attention to, or to march in support of – no matter how distasteful.
The First Amendment is complicated and at times frustrating in its inclusivity. The spectrum of its freedoms empowers our individualism on the one hand and enables our collective voice on the other. It facilitates our ability to change the structure of our government, and to decide who gets a voice in that government (and how much of one), but it also can be used to prevent change from happening, to bulwark position and privilege, and to support the status quo. It is the power and the inertia on both sides of the metronome.
Americans, no matter how polarized we may be, share a common purpose or goal, whether we are conscious of it or not, from the Preamble of the Constitution: “to form a more perfect Union.”
The five freedoms in the First Amendment are what empower us, we the people, to create that more perfect union.
On the 230th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights and the official adoption of the First Amendment, the question is, will we ever agree on what a more perfect union might look like?
The First Amendment protects our right to live our freedoms even as we debate the question.
By Christian Cotz, CEO of the First Amendment Museum