Why is the First Amendment Important?

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What is the First Amendment and why is it important?

Colin Powell asked “How can a president of the United States get up and say that the media is the enemy of Americans? Hasn’t he read the First Amendment? You are not supposed to like everything the press says, or what anyone says …. that’s why we have a First Amendment, to protect that kind if speech.”

Not everyone has the First Amendment memorized (I certainly don’t yet, although I have resolved to do so as soon as I can manage it), but most high school students and graduates in the United States at least know that the First Amendment covers freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom from religion, as well as the right to assemble and protest.

“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.”

At the time our Constitution was written, many European nations took it for granted that the king and his subjects should be of the same denomination, and/or the king had the right to determine what religion his people should be. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth has ‘Defender of the Faith’ as one of her official titles, and is automatically head of the Church of England. Although the UK has freedom of religion now, it was only in 1829 that Roman Catholics were allowed to be elected to the House of Commons.

As many Christian dominionists are fond of pointing out, the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ does not appear in the Constitution itself. That phrase is from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802. However, the idea is in the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education (1947)

The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.’ 330 U.S. 1, 15–16.” Justice Hugo Black

Heroes of the First Amendment include John Peter Zenger, who ironically died before the United States was born as a nation and before the Constitution was written, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, who argued vehemently for Freedom of the Press, poet/civil rights activist Pauli Murray, who led a sit-in at a Washington diner mere blocks from the White House during WWII.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Marquis de la Fayette, wrote: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.” Jefferson considered public education and freedom of the press necessary for the health and survival of the United States, or any free nation.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” T. J.

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” — Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

Attorney Michael Josephson was kind enough to gather some of the best quotations on Freedom of the Press. Reading them will explain WHY the First Amendment is necessary for our nation’s survival and success.

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Wordsmith, freelance writer, Mama, stroke survivor. BA, San Diego State University (English major, anthropology minor). Schoolmarm when my health permits.

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Susan Macdonald

Susan Macdonald

Wordsmith, freelance writer, Mama, stroke survivor. BA, San Diego State University (English major, anthropology minor). Schoolmarm when my health permits.

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