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The First Amendment

“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.”



It’s common for Americans to believe that the first amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion mean “I can do what I want and no one can tell me otherwise.” When Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson made his infamous anti-homosexual remarks and consequently got suspended from the show, the far-right lamented “liberal” media’s destruction of free speech, many claiming it violated Robertson’s right to free speech and free exercise of religion. It seems to escape these people that the amendment clearly states that “Congress shall make no law,” not “nobody shall ever interfere with” people’s first amendment rights. In other words, it would be a violation of Phil Robertson’s rights if the government stepped in and pulled him off the air for his religiously inspired rant against homosexuality—but not if non-government-owned television stations pulled him off the air.

Oddly enough, these same folks who condemn businesses (and anyone else, really) for addressing hate speech and discriminating against those who make remarks that are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., are the ones who want to give businesses whose owners hold certain religious beliefs the right to deny services to people who do not fit the right “criteria” (i.e. gay couples who want to buy their wedding cake from a bakery with religious owners or gay couples who want to adopt children). They say they want to allow businesses to discriminate freely without Big Brother getting in the way; I think what they really want is to give businesses the right to do only what fits within their specific ideology.

Calling people out on their hate speech and choosing not to listen or choosing not to broadcast them is not violating first amendment rights; it’s exercising them. I use my right to free speech to tell you to stop talking, and I use my freedom of religion to say no to your religion. It’s that simple.

Furthermore, when the people protest against displays of racism, anti-LGBTQIA propaganda, sexism, religious symbols and practices, etc. in public places (such as Nativity scenes on government-owned property), it is not the destruction of free speech or free exercise of religion; it is the people’s right to petition the government to control what is allowed in public spaces and protesting any government endorsement of a particular set of religious beliefs. People have the right to respond to exercises of free speech and religious practice that they find to be offensive or contrary to the government’s religious neutrality, as mandated by the First Amendment.

It is an immature tendency of the American public to believe that freedom of speech and religion means that they can say and do whatever they want and use the Constitution as a shield from any consequences; but, though the government cannot itself interfere (unless it presents clear harm to the public), people can either themselves put an end to certain First Amendment abuses, or assemble and petition to have certain destructive ideas that threaten the security of the state to be censored by the government. That is the American way, according to the U.S. Constitution. Give it a read.

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Caroline Peterson

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