Tuesday, November 13, 2007

First Amendment Discussion

With the current elections in full swing now, there is a lot of commentary on the "race" and on the issues at hand in the newspapers, on TV and especially on the Internet. Some of this commentary can be offensive or against what you personally believe in, especially in the blog forum, which tends to be personal and tailored to the author's beliefs and ideologies. I have tried in my blog to remain somewhat neutral in the reporting aspect of my stories. If I have a strong opinion about something, I will interject it into my story if I feel the need to. I think it is important, especially today, with the almost omnipresence of the media, that when you get bombarded by information from all different types of sources, you are able to distinguish the proverbial tree from the forest. In other words, you are able to see the larger picture and you don't get caught up in too much fact, or conversely, too much opinion. Having said that, there is a great need in our democratic society for fact and opinion. Both are considered to have substantial newsworthiness and that need speaks directly to the reason the First Amendment was included in our U.S. Constitution. I felt compelled to have a discussion on the First Amendment, considering I am the author of a blog in which I do a mix of reporting and commentary. The premise of my blog is that people need to pay attention to the issues surrounding them and to care enough to educate themselves and then take some action. Without the protection the First Amendment offers us all, it would be difficult to do this because if the capability to disseminate information was not protected, the public would be powerless against a government that is designed to be checked by the people. Thus, my discussion of the our first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights.

The language of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is well-known to many and it has a profound effect on our lives as Americans. The entire profession of journalism, the media and therefore much of our society as it exists today would be entirely different if the First Amendment was not in place. The more serious investigative journalists that are a part of the media, have been called the “fourth estate,” or the fourth branch of government, involved in the checks and balances system. The question of what kind of “checks” if any, the government can put on the media has been debated and cases have been brought to the United States Supreme Court. There have been attempts the government has made to do so in cases such as New York Times v. United States when the government sought to stop publication or “prior restraint” of a document that detailed the United States involvement in Vietnam. Even though the court ruled against prior restraint, historically there have been many more attempts to control the press. Speech that is considered to be an obscenity, which can elicit violent reactions or produce some sort of evil, has traditionally not been protected under the First Amendment, especially when it applies to a public school. The United States Supreme Court in cases such as the “Bong Hits for Jesus” case have upheld a precedent that when it comes to speech interfering with a school’s mission, that speech has not been protected. Derived from this thinking, we see the emergence of tests such as the “clear and present danger” test, proposed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
I can understand that certain publication of very specific classified matters should not be published in the interest in saving lives, it is important not to let those few exceptions set a precedent for a slippery slope that would leave Americans with no real First Amendment rights and the press as a public relations tool of the government.
When asked by a man on the street what type of government the Framers had decided upon, Benjamin Franklin replied, “It’s a Republic, if you can keep it.” I think the same logic applies to many of these rights we all enjoy. The power to say what we think, exercise the ability to question and petition the government without fear of reprisal come easy to us when it’s our own thoughts and opinions, but not necessarily when it’s the opinions of another we completely disagree with. These freedoms provide a tremendous amount of power for an ordinary citizen. With that power, comes responsibilities to uphold those rights even if it means you are offended, annoyed or in disagreement with what you see, hear, or read in a publication.
Last month, the President of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was invited by Columbia University’s President to speak. Many people from the community were outraged to hear that Ahmadinejad was coming to speak at Columbia as many of his ideas are ludicrous to people. I can’t help but wonder if those people who criticized Columbia University have forgotten what we as a country are all about. The freedom of speech means for all no matter if you agree with the ideas or not. It is easy for people to sit and listen to someone who is of the same mind set as them, but it is much harder to listen to someone whose ideas are polar opposite of yours. As hard as it is to do this, it is beneficial to account for and have knowledge of even your enemy’s beliefs.
It seems that in theory our government should protect and provide for these freedoms, but in reality there is a struggle to keep them narrow and well-defined. Certain “symbolic speech” such as burning the American flag, is extremely offensive to some people. Those people tend to call upon their patriotism and claim the act should be punished. I would argue, however, the real patriotic thing is having the strength to allow the burning of the flag even though it goes against everything you might personally believe in. You can’t deny another’s First Amendment rights on the grounds that you just don’t agree with the same things as they do. The United States Supreme Court affirmed this in the 1989 case, Texas v. Johnson. Still, in light of the decision, attempts were made to squash the right through Congress’ Flag Protection Act and the former President Bush’s pledge to “protect the flag,” but what the former president and congress was really “protecting” was the citizens from their First Amendment rights based on their personal ideologies of flag burning.
Americans enjoy these rights and seem to exercise them freely and without instance when their own ideas, sentiments and values are being expressed. However, they seem to be quick to argue against those rights if the speech is counter to what they believe in. It’s important to have the strength to listen to others ideas, because a loss of one person’s First Amendment rights is a loss for all people.

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