OPINION: A Bill of Rights primer for all Americans
I love the Fourth of July, not only for the fireworks and picnics and band concerts, which are great fun, but also for the meaning of the date we celebrate every year.
How could a kid grow up in this country in the 1940s and 1950s and not think Independence Day was special? We threw off the burdensome hand of the king and declared ourselves the United States of America.
Yes, politics and rancorous debate were involved. And, yes, the 242-some years since have witnessed frequent times when we failed to fulfill the promise of the new nation and have witnessed frequent, bitter disagreement over what the promise of the United States even is. Still, the grand concept of the United States of America has always, and I hope will always, make me catch my breath.
As I grew into a career as a newspaper reporter, I came to be in awe of the work and wisdom that produced the U.S. Constitution, ratified a decade after the Declaration of Independence. Perhaps because I spent my working life as a reporter, I developed a deep respect for the work and wisdom that produced the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791.
Well, sure, some would say. Newspaper people love to talk about freedom of the press and all that First Amendment stuff.
That's true. I do love to talk about freedom of the press and "all that First Amendment stuff.'' I love the quote, attributed to one of the Founding Fathers, that says something about given a choice between a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, he'd take the latter, so long as every person could receive the paper and be capable of reading it. What's not to like?
But, listen. There's much more to the First Amendment. It isn't just giving reporters and editors freedom to do as they please. Yes, the First Amendment does offer very specific protections for those of us who work in the news world. But that isn't the only point of the thing. Here's the full language of that 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.''
That's for all of us. Each of us has the right to practice our own religion — or not, as the case may be. The government can neither establish nor prohibit a religion, not any religion, no matter how popular. Each of us has the right to free speech — not just newspaper people but every other person, too. That's pretty important, even if it means someone can stand in the town square or go on the radio and say stuff that makes your blood boil.
And those other two guarantees, the one about the right to assemble peaceably and the right to petition your government for redress of grievances? They're powerful rights, whether the assemblers and petitioners are civil rights activists, Donald Trump supporters, oil pipeline protesters or Families Belong Together marchers angry at immigration policy.
The rest of the Bill of Rights is powerful stuff, too. Anyone who doesn't know about the right to bear arms contained in the Second Amendment has been living alone on a desert island for a long, long time.
Generally, the government can't make you house soldiers in your home (third). You're protected against unreasonable search and seizure (fourth). You can't be forced to incriminate yourself (fifth). You have a right to a speedy, public trial and a lawyer to represent you (sixth). You have a right to a jury trial (seventh). You are protected against excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishment (eighth). It's recognized that the rights listed aren't all the rights you have (ninth). And generally, if the constitution doesn't specifically give the federal government a certain power, it is reserved to the states or the people (10th).
Taken together, those rights and protections I just over-simplified are a key reason we continue to celebrate our independence as a nation. They're that important.