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Why Celebrate the Birthday of the First Amendment?

By Rosanna Cavanagh, executive director, New England First Amendment Coalition, Providence, R.I.

This month marks the 219th birthday of the First Amendment.  It is as good a time as any to take stock of what was accomplished in ratifying this amendment and reflect on what it means in our lives today.

The First Amendment was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution which guarantee individual liberties, privacy interests and states rights on Dec. 15, 1791.  The five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are assembly, petition, speech, press, and religion.  As I think about my life and what I do on a day-to-day basis, I cannot imagine not having those freedoms.  On a typical Wednesday, for instance, I grab the newspaper outside my door, read the headlines over breakfast, swing by a chapel on my way to work, say some prayers for a good day, get to my desk, read more news online, set up meetings and calls, write proposals and/or testimony for public hearings.  Sometimes I am asked to comment on a particular issue going on in one of the New England states having to do with accessing information from the government.  It is a tribute to our society, our country, our democracy that I can do all of these things without any fear in my heart – and each of these actions is a reflection of one of the five freedoms that the First Amendment has given me.

It is amazing to think that our Constitution was ratified without any guarantee to the people of the First Amendment freedoms (and without any bill of rights at all) and that there were strong arguments made by some of our founding fathers against having a bill of rights.   In Federalist Paper No. 84, Alexander Hamilton wrote, “It has been several times duly remarked that bills of rights are, in their origin, stipulations between kings and their subjects, abridgments of prerogative in favor of privilege, reservations of rights not surrendered to the prince.”  He went on further to disparage the idea of a bill of rights as not just unnecessary in a democracy but outright “dangerous.”  A bill of rights, he believed would “contain various exceptions to powers that were not granted. For why declare that things should not be done which there is no power to do?  Why for instance should it be said that the liberty of the press shall not be restrained, when no power is given by which restrictions must be imposed?”  (As we would later see, specifically granted or not, the legislative branch of our nation would find the power to impose restrictions on speech and the press.  As early as 1798, the Alien and Sedition Acts, adopted by Congress in the midst of a politically rancorous climate, allowed the federal government to prosecute, fine and jail anyone whose expressed opinions were found to be a threat to the government. They were repealed or had expired by 1802.)

But other, more persuasive, founding fathers shot back.  Thomas Jefferson, for instance, came out strongly in favor of a bill of rights. “I like much the general idea of framing a government, which should go on of itself, peaceably, without needing continual recurrence to the state legislatures… I will now tell you what I do not like.  First, the omission of a bill of rights … Let me add that a bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth, general or particular and what no just government should refuse.” (Letter to James Madison from Paris, Dec. 20, 1787)

The Federalist Farmer had this to say: “[T]here are certain unalienable and fundamental rights, which in forming the social compact, ought to be explicitly ascertained and fixed — a free and enlightened people in forming this compact, will not resign all their rights to those who govern, and they will fix limits to the legislators and rulers which will soon be plainly seen by those who are governed as well as by those who govern and the latter will know they cannot be passed unperceived by the former and without giving a general alarm.” (The Anti-Federalist)  And fortunately for us this idea carried the day. Actual rights put into print would provide an anchor to society and a reference point when a citizen felt he had been abused to determine what should be done in such a situation.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in summing up America circa 1840 in “Democracy in America,” wrote: “[N]othing is more fertile in marvels than the art of being free, but nothing is harder than freedom’s apprenticeship.”  Two hundred nineteen years later, America, we are still in that apprenticeship period:  Our country is not perfect, as is no place in the world.  Access to vital information from our governments is getting tougher in some of our New England states.  Yet, nevertheless, we are still clicking along, working together as citizens to improve the situation, exercising our First Amendment rights in pursuit of a better, more perfect polity.  Happy Birthday to you First Amendment and may you have many, many more.

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