GUEST COMMENTARY: Say thanks to those who made the First Amendment possible

Tuesday, December 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

Under the First Amendment, I get to say most anything out loud without fear of government interference or retaliation. So I’d like to say … “Thanks.”

“Thanks” to our nation’s Founders who, after debate over whether we needed a First Amendment and the nine other amendments that make up our Bill of Rights, finally agreed that we did.

“Thanks” to James Madison and others who found the right 45 words to declare for more than two centuries that government could not intrude on or deny our core freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

And “thanks” to the citizens who, in a process that reached its zenith on Dec. 15, 1791, — 219 years ago — ratified those first 10 amendments that protect our core freedoms.

Consider how First Amendment freedoms have shaped the nation’s progress:

Freedom of religion — providing that government may neither favor nor disfavor any particular faith and that we as individuals may worship, or not, as we choose — has helped spare this nation from much of the violence and strife over religious differences that still afflicts much of the world.

Being able to speak and write freely about the issues of our time has allowed us — imperfectly at times, to be sure — to discuss, debate and determine our best solutions to some of the most vexing issues facing humanity, from slavery to women’s rights to civil rights.

And, coupled with the freedoms already named, being able to assemble with like-minded citizens and having the right to seek justice from our leaders has time after time allowed the oppressed, the ignored and the needy to bring their cases to the court of public opinion and to the administrative and legislative halls of government.

Chief Justice John Roberts, in a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, stirringly rejected a government claim that our First Amendment freedoms might depend at times on their benefit to society.

"The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the Government outweigh the costs,” Roberts wrote.

We have these freedoms not because the founders or government bureaucrats granted them, and most assuredly not because a majority of us at any one time maintains them. We have them as part of our basic rights as Americans.

Not that many of us can name those rights — no more than six of 100 Americans could name all five in this year’s State of the First Amendment national survey by the First Amendment Center. The national initiative “1 for All” — — aims to change all that by encouraging our fellow citizens to learn about, and support, the First Amendment.

Considering that in many parts of the world there are people risking their livelihoods and even their lives to get some measure of the freedoms we have every morning when we awake, we should say “thanks” for them often and pledge to know them at least.

This is a good day to get started on both.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center.

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Paul Allaire December 14, 2010 | 6:36 p.m.

Perhaps it should be taught in school.

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