You would think that we could rest comfortably on our First Amendment, for instance. It’s been there since 1791. It’s almost in the American DNA.
Yet, the fundamental human rights recognized by the First Amendment are neither globally accepted nor secure.
Did you know that you could be charged with a crime for expressing the “wrong” opinion even in Western Europe?
And as news reports put it, a recent judicial paper on the press in Britain “urged Parliament to pass a law creating a new voluntary regulatory body for the country’s newspapers.”
While participation in the regulatory agency would be voluntary, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke for many when he cautioned, “For the first time we would have crossed the Rubicon of writing elements of press regulation into the law of the land.”
Such a law is strictly forbidden in the United States, thanks to the First Amendment, which says in whole: “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.”
Even so, our free speech rights often are in peril. Lamentably, some of the most active battlefields in continuing struggle to retain the right of free speech are on college campuses. The political correctness movement has led over the years to restrictive, and quite obviously unconstitutional, speech codes aimed at eliminating speech that offends someone, particularly those deemed to be in protected classes.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org), for instance, features a “speech code of the month” – last month, the speech code from the University of North Dakota, which is so vague that, as FIRE puts it, “is so vague that students have no way of knowing whether their speech or expression might inadvertently run afoul of the policy.”
While preventing harassment, racism and sexism is an important goal, it’s still constitutionally dubious to outlaw “offending” people.
This is not a mere academic concern. These cases involve real people and their right to free speech. Washington Post columnist George Will recently highlighted one case in which a student-employee at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) was actually rung up for racial harassment for quietly reading a book – one that celebrated the defeat of the Ku Klux Klan at Notre Dame University.
The book in question was said to be available in the school library.
Student Keith John Sampson’s record was ultimately cleared, but not without a titanic public relations and legal battle.
We shouldn’t have to fight so hard for rights enshrined in our Constitution since 1791, but there it is.
Nor is everyone in politics a fan of the First Amendment. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., was recently quoted as saying, “We need a constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to control the so-called free speech rights of corporations.”
Here’s to your “so-called” freedom of speech. Long may it live.