Modern Interpretation Of The First Amendment Essay

, Research Paper

The Modern Interpretation of the First Amendment

Mr. Edwards


Spring 2001

The first Amendment of the United States Constitution says; “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.”[1] Our fore fathers felt that this statement was plain enough for all to understand, however quite often the United States government deems it necessary to make laws to better define those rights that are stated in the Constitution. Today the framers would be both encouraged and discouraged by our modern interpretation the First Amendment the United States Constitution.

A great deal of bills have been written and passed as legislation under the pretense that they would better outline the citizen’ rights and ensure their freedoms. Yet occasionally these laws are created with disregard to what is stated in our Constitution. At times they distort and twist the original meaning of the work, counter acting the purpose of creating the Amendments. The intention of Amendments was to be an outline of the rights of the people. They were to ensure that there would not be a repeat of what the framers had experienced when they set out on their mission to draft a document that would govern our country for years to come. Little by little our elected officials have been discounting our Constitution. There are many resulting repercussions; the most dear to everyone being the individuals rights. The end result of these interpretations being that our people are hurt, as we are slowly being stripped of our rights as U.S. citizens.

There are two freedoms that seem to cause the most contention, the first being freedom of press and the second being the freedom of religion.

“ It remains to be noted that none of the great constitutional rights of conscience, however vital to a free society is absolute in character. Thus, while the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion goes a long way, it does not serve to protect acts judged to be morally licentious, such as poly amorous marriages. Children cannot be required to execute the flag salute which is forbidden by religious belief… Similarly freedom of speech, often defended by the courts, does not extend to the seditious utterance of a conspiracy which, is the considered opinion of congress, poses a clear present danger to the safety of the republic (Dennis v. United States, 1951) but the court has emphasized that the act of congress on the subject the Smith act does not forbid mere advocacy of abstract doctrine but only incitement to action designed to accomplish the illegal purpose of overthrowing the government (Yates v. United States, 1957). The state is not free to license the privilege of giving speech… yet it may punish for ‘fighting words’ which may lead to breaches of the peach (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942) or the publication of obscene matter (Roth v. United States, 1957).[2]

The Constitution states that a person has the right to publish or print any news or opinions that they deem worthy. Yet today some laws prohibit this freedom, by creating laws in order to protect the individual’s privacy, we are limiting ones ability to report facts. Furthermore many records previously available for the public to view are now sealed. On the opposite end of the spectrum new freedoms are being allowed. In a court case, “Justice Joseph Teresi has struck an important blow for constitutional rights and an open judicial process by allowing cameras to televise the murder trial.”[3] By allowing a camera into the courtroom people are better able to get a grasp on our judicial system in the United States. This decision also allows citizens to view first hand news in action, without any biases created by reporters. As some of our freedoms are revoked other are being ratified. These changes are necessary to accommodate our changing beliefs. As our society is growing and changing, with increased technological capabilities we are forced to create laws that protect the individual from being taken advantage of.

The freedom of Religion is the second freedom that has much controversy surrounding it. The Constitution prohibits the government from adopting a religion, it also allows a person to practice whatever religion they desire, or even not practice if they choose to do so. Ample controversy has arisen around the government and its stand on religion. Nowhere in the Constitution does it state that there must be a separation of church and state, this creating a gray area because it is an implied law. When prayer was prohibited in schools many believed that it created a direct violation of our rights. Our Constitution has given us the liberty to practice any religion we select. Yet prayer is no longer allowed in school due to legislation that has been passed to prevent it. The compromise allowed is that students are free to read the Bible or any other religious materials on their own free time, where previously it had been a part of the curriculum. In addition they are free to try to persuade, not to harass, others to believe the way they do, only if it is presented in a debate form. Presently the only time that prayer may be used in school is at a very special time in a young person’s life, graduation. At this time prayer is allowed only if a student has commence them and if they are not using the time to attempt to persuade others. The freedom that we are left is that “Students may be released for religious instruction off school premises.”[4] The government has not made laws preventing citizens for using this freedom, however they have made this practice nearly extinct. Most parents don’t know about their right to have their children attend religious training while on school time, or even how to go about setting up the process. Even still, when Americans are informed of their rights to this freedom it is not easily attainable for most working class. Financial resources and time to set up these programs are the main problems that parents are facing. These hard working parents strive to support their family and don’t typically don’t have means or time to put these plans into action. Perhaps this is a time when our rights begin to come with a price. It also leads to the conclusion that very thing that the country was founded on, religion is the very thing that the government is trying to prevent.

As for the education aspect “schools may not teach “creation science” or other religiously based concepts in science classes.”5 Yet they are not prohibited form teaching the “evolutionary theory.”5 In order to not force beliefs upon students creationism is barred form being taught in the classroom. This practice is all well in theory, until teachers are required to teach students the evolution theory. In this case one form of religion is permissible, but not another. How is it that a law may be passed to keep a popular religion out of school and yet allow another to be taught in its place? The framers intention was to allow all forms of religion to be accepted. When they made all people equal and ensured everyone’s rights they did not insert a clause that allowed for special rules to be implemented if important people choose to do so. With over 2,000 different forms of religion in the United States it would be impossible to teach all forms in order to be fair to everyone. This poses a serious problem, since it would not be fair to only a few forms of religion. Instead of doing the most logical thing the government removed religion form school except when learning about a culture, and placed another form of religion in its place. Evolution is a theory, it is just as much a theory as creationism and so conflict is born. One is acceptable in the classroom environment, and the other is excluded.

In America, a free country, we are garneted unalienable rights. Our freedoms here are great and broad, yet they narrow with every bias law created. When a new law is made in order to “protect” the people, often it hurts them as they, perhaps without knowledge of it, are slowly allowing the government to have more and more control over their lives. The intention of the framers annexing the Bill of Rights to the Constitution was to protect the people from the governmental control that they had previously been subjected to. Their goal was to create a free country without persecution and a government commanding every aspect of an individual’s life.

Through the years many changes have taken place, and technologies have been discovered, yet our Constitution remains. Some say that the Constitution was written for people hundreds of years ago, and in turn is out of step with the times. Yet its principals and guidelines have held thus far. The framers would be pleases that their great planning and thought have been implemented up until this point. However this does not compensate for the fact, that the we the people have empowered the government more so than our fore fathers had intended. Citizens were entrusted with the duty to oversee the government, yet so many times they are disinterested and only seem to have an opinion when the government’s implications affect them. As time has changed so has the American people, we often interpret our freedoms in a self serving manner, disregarding the good of the whole and also the good for the future. Thus there are no true flaws in the Constitution, it appears that the conflict emerges in the individual and their self, and poses question when we must decide when to compromise the morals that our Constitution was founded on, or when to stick to what we know is right and honest.


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