Who Gets First Amendment Protections?

I have seen the claim made that Freedom of the Press only applies to “journalists” and if one is not a journalist by some definition thereof, one is not entitled to that protection.  Similarly, the question arises as to what constitutes as “church” and thus deserving of Freedom of Religion. (And if they could figure some way to limit Freedom of Speech to a particular recognized “class” of people, I’m sure they’d try to do that too.)

Both of these questions completely miss the point.

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 rights of the First Amendment, like all the rights in the Bill of Rights, are rights of individuals.  Of the people, each and every one of us.  Every person has Freedom of the Press.  Every person has Freedom of Religion.  Every.  Single.  Person.  And thanks to the Fourteenth, they don’t just restrict Congress, but also the individual States.

With that in mind, Freedom of Speech protects what you say or otherwise communicate communicate to a person or group of people directly, face to face, as it were.

Freedom of the Press protects what you write or otherwise render into a form to communicate with people removed in time or space.  At the time of the writing of the Constitution that meant either writing letters or printing using a printing press (thus “of the press”).

Freedom of Religion isn’t just a matter of what recognized church you belong to, but a protection for your individual beliefs whether part of an organized religion or not.

In the movie Sergeant York, there was a scene where Alvin York, having once been a violent individual and after having his own personal “Road to Damascus” moment, refused to have more to do with violence.  When conscripted for World War I, he tried to register as a Conscientious Objector.  However since the church he attended did not forbid fighting in wars he was denied this. (I refer only to the movie here and am using this fictional example to illustrate the point.) This, I believe, was an incorrect application of the First Amendment.  His believe, the Sergeant York portrayed in the moive, was non-violence.  That the church he happened to attend did not share that belief did not mean his belief should not be protected under the First Amendment. (And as a hedge against someone using such a claim to cover cowardice–well, there are plenty of non-combat positions that are just as dangerous as foot-soldier.  The Army Ambulance Service in WWI would come to mind.  Or courier and other jobs that bring one under fire without oneself doing the shooting.)

Peaceable Assembly, your right to get together with others generally making it easier to apply that freedom of speech.  Of course note that word “peaceable”.  Throwing stones, breaking windows, generally interfering with other people trying to go about their lawful business is not peaceable.

And finally petition government for redress of grievance isn’t just the write to circulate petitions for signatures but any matter where you communicate with government officials to ask that they resolve something that you believe they are doing wrong.  There is no guarantee that they will do that, of course, but you are allowed to ask without censure.

Furthermore, these things need to be interpreted as broadly as possible.  Freedom of Speech doesn’t just mean spoken words, but anything that one person does to communicate a message to others.  That could be sign language, gestures, performance art, and, yes, burning flags or books (so long as they own the flag or book–destruction of someone else’s property is rightfully a crime).  The only real limit on any of these is the point where it infringes on someone else’s rights.  And, no, being offended does not qualify.  There is no right not to be offended.

People ask, “but what about when they say this horrible thing?”  Well, the answer to odious speech is more speech.  If somebody is out there extoling the virtues of communism, then speak out about how it’s a horrible system that leads to wholesale deaths.  If someone advocates slavery, speak out in favor of freedom.  If you find something offensive, then don’t silence them.  Explain why they’re wrong.

Just a word of advice.  If you want to convince people, you might want to have a little more in your toolkit than insults for those who disagree with you.

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