Constitutional Scholar Presents a Primer on the First Amendment
There have been several media reports recently that high school, college students and even some politicians cannot name the freedoms delineated in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
To help remedy that situation, Rob Natelson, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute in Denver, and former law professor at the University of Montana, provided a primer on the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution.
“By way of introduction, I must say that this is a common problem for students coming out of school, colleges and high schools, without knowing the fundamentals of our system of government,” began Natelson, who actually taught a very tough Bill of Rights class at UM. “Obviously, the First Amendment is one of those fundamentals, so I’m not surprised.”
Natelson began by stating the very brief text of the First Amendment, and it actually does not start with freedom of speech or the press, but rather with the matter of religion.
“What the First Amendment does is to protect six different rights,” he said. “The first one says ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.’ Essentially, what that means is that Congress should not favor one religion over another. The second clause in the First Amendment prohibits Congress from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. For example, Congress couldn’t pass a law outlawing the celebration of Mormonism, or Judaism, or other religions that Congress might disfavor.”
Why was religion at the top of the list in this very important part of the Constitution?
“Virtually all recognize that religion had an important role to play in a free government,” he said. “For example at that time, no one could take an oath or testify in court unless he believed in God. Essentially, the position of those that framed the Constitution was that we want people to believe in God, but the specific religion they favored was their own business.”
Next up in the text of the First Amendment is all about speech.
“The third clause of the First Amendment is called the ‘free speech clause’,” he said. “It prohibits Congress from abridging the freedom of speech, At the time of the founding that simply meant personal speech, such as standing on a street corner and giving a speech and it also included standing up and giving a speech in a legislative body. The founders believed that freedom of speech was necessary for a free government and so they protected it.”
Natelson said there were some caveats to free speech.
“Freedom of speech did not include things like slander, or blasphemy against the Deity and there’s the classic example of crying ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, a good example of something not protected under the free speech clause.”
Next up in the First Amendment, freedom of the press.
“The fourth clause says that Congress shall make no law prohibiting freedom of the press,” he said. “We would think of this today as speaking through a medium. This would include the right of a newspaper owner to publish their newspapers, to write op/eds and letters to the editor. It would also include the right to post handbills and would also include broadcasting by television and radio and via the internet. Like freedom of speech, the freedom of the press would not include the right to libel someone or the right to engage in obscene behavior.”
Natelson continued with his look at the First Amendment by looking at peaceable assembly.
“The next right is that of the people to assemble peaceably,” he said. “That means the right to go to a meeting hall and includes the right to participate in clubs, including participation in organizations that seek change in government. So if people form a campaign organization that decides to support candidate ‘X’ or oppose candidate ‘Y’.”
The final right delineated in the Bill of Rights is to allow the people to let the government know what they think of it.
“Finally, the sixth right in the First Amendment is the petition clause that reads ‘Congress shall not have the power to prohibit the right of the people to petition the government the redress of grievances’,” he said. “That means writing a letter to your Congressman, or also means getting up a lengthy petition urging the government to do something or not to do something.”
Natelson summed up the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
“In summary, the First Amendment protects all sorts of right, six in general,” he said. “However, sometimes in actually applying the First Amendment there can be difficult rules of interpretation involved. One of the things I’ve done in my work is to try to uncover what the founders meant by each one of these clauses, and that provides guidance to the court in making its own determinations.”
Natelson’s book, ‘The Original Constitution; What it Actually Said and Meant’ is written so that the average citizen can understand the original motives of the nation’s founders.
Each day of the following week, the KGVO Montana Morning News will feature one of the rights set forth in the First Amendment, as explained by Rob Natelson.