You Need to Learn the First Amendment

I think my students are starting to get hip to what I’m up to. At the start of each semester, in all of my classes, I have a little chat about the First Amendment. My basic plea to them is this: memorize it and think about it.

It’s important for Americans — and those who are living in our country — to develop an understanding of it because we exercise our First Amendment freedoms every day. Journalists and mass communicators in particular need to be very familiar with it. How hypocritical it is to shout “it’s my First Amendment right!” without even knowing what the entire amendment states.

So, here it is — all 45 words of it.

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.

And let’s clear this up right now. The First Amendment isn’t just for journalists. It’s for all citizens.

Do you attend church? There’s a First Amendment protection for that.

Do you like to campaign for your favorite political candidate? The First Amendment is your friend.

Have you participated in any of the “Occupy” protests of late? Yep — there’s the First Amendment again.

Have you ever requested your congressional representative to change some stupid policy? You see where I’m going.

Take a look at the following scary statistics from the “State of the First Amendment 2011” survey by the First Amendment Center:

When asked to name the freedoms of the First Amendment, 62% of Americans could name the freedom of speech, followed by 19% who said freedom of religion, 17% mentioned freedom of the press, 14% said the right to assemble, and 3% named the right to petition. Thirty percent of Americans could not list any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Yikes. Nearly one-third of those surveyed couldn’t even name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Here’s why I think that’s dangerous.

Ignorance allows governments and powerful interests to erode the rights of the people. An informed citizenry is much more difficult to snooker.

So learn the First Amendment. If you don’t know the rights it guarantees you, it’ll be too late to do anything about it if those rights are taken away.

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