The Contemporary Meaning of the Bill of Rights: First Amendment

UPDATED 11/18/11 and 11/30/11

Although there was, in the early days of the Republic, some misunderstanding about the applicability of the Bill of Rights — whether it bound only the central government or the States as well — that misunderstanding was resolved, finally, by Chief Justice John Marshall, in Barron v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore (1833). Marshall held that the Bill of Rights applied only to the central government. Marshall’s holding should have been undone by the “privileges and immunities” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), which was meant to enforce the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights against the States. (The final two amendments of the Bill of Rights directly address the States and do not require “incorporation.”) That the Supreme Court has nevertheless seen fit to incorporate the Bill of Rights piecemeal and incompletely is a case of judicial error or misfeasance, as you wish.

In any event, the meaning of the Bill of Rights has evolved and shifted with time, not always for the better. What  follows, in this and subsequent posts, is my take on the original meaning of the Bill of Rights, stated in modern language and addressed to contemporary issues. The constitutional text is in italics. My version is in bold. [11/18/11: An addition to the first paragraph of my version is in bold italics.] [11/30/11: A second addition to the first paragraph of my version is in underlined bold italics.]

Amendment I

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.

No government of or in the United States may establish an official religion or, by any act, favor a particular religion, sect, or cult. The expression of religious views by a member, officer, employee, or agent of a governmental body, acting as such, is not an establishment of religion. Nor is the verbal or tangible observance of a religious holiday by such persons an establishment of religion, as long as no one is compelled to join the observance. Except to enforce the preceding provisions, no governmental body of or in the United States may interfere with the peaceful observance of religion or with the peaceful expression of religious views, in verbal or tangible form. Nor may any governmental body of or in the United States compel any person or private entity to perform an act that is contrary to the person’s religious beliefs or the beliefs espoused by the private entity, either directly or by threatening or causing the loss or diminution of a person’s employment or a private entity’s patronage, revenues, profits, or existence. Further, no governmental body may compel a minor to attend or participate in a lesson or activity that conflicts with the religious beliefs of the minor and/or his parent(s) or guardian(s); nor shall a minor or his parent(s) or guardian(s) be penalized in any way for a refusal to participate in any such lesson or activity.

“Speech” is the transmission of ideas. The curtailment of “speech” is an affront to liberty and can hinder the people’s betterment. Subversive “speech” that foments or abets treason, insurrection, rebellion, or crime should be dealt with under one of those headings.

Profanity and obscenity are not “speech,” and therefore do not merit protection; ideas can be conveyed without the use of profanity and obscenity. The people, through their State and local governments, may legislate against profanity and obscenity, and the interstate transmission of profanity and obscenity shall be regulated by the laws of the jurisdictions whose citizens are recipients of a transmission, by any medium. The role of the central government in such matters shall be restricted to the judicial determination of the reasonableness of any restriction on the transmission of profanity and obscenity.

“Speech” may not be barred, regulated, or penalized merely because it might be or is deemed objectionable by other persons or category of persons. This provision applies not only to governments of and in the United States but also to institutions of learning that operate under the aegis of such governments.

The emissions of the press, in whatever medium, are merely an aspect of “speech.” The press enjoys no special rights  of “speech” over and above those enjoyed by the people at large.

Prior restraint of “speech,” regardless of its source, is potentially dangerous to liberty and should not be undertaken lightly. But — given due process of law — such restraint may be exercised by a government of or in the United States for the purpose of preventing a particular act of treason, insurrection, or rebellion, or a crime that would take place absent the restraint.

No government of or in the United States may bar, disrupt, or dissolve any peaceful assembly on private property, as long as the owner of the property assents to the assembly. If the owner does not assent, the government with jurisdiction shall enforce the owner’s property rights. An assembly on public property is deemed not peaceful if causes or contributes to a breakdown of public order,  or if it prevents the use of that property for its intended purposes. In any event, no government shall allow an assembly on public property to continue for more than 24 hours if it requires the government to incur expenses over and above a normal amount, unless financial responsible parties assure the reimbursement of such expenses. A government shall bar, disrupt, or dissolve any assembly within its jurisdiction if it is not peaceful or if there is a reasonable expectation that reimbursement, if required, will not be made.

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The final paragraph might seem unduly restrictive, but in this age of instant communication and intellectual “flash mobs,” public demonstrations are not much more than ego-trips that impose costs and inconveniences on hard-working taxpayers.

To be continued…

Related posts: IV. The Constitution: Original Meaning, Subversion, and Restoration, at “Favorite Posts