There’s much more to the First Amendment than you think

Published 7:45 pm Friday, August 16, 2019


The Advocate-Messenger

This month is the start of a new campaign to raise awareness about the First Amendment nationwide. The “Th1nk First” campaign was created in Nebraska, but media companies across the country, including this one, have since joined the effort.

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You have probably already seen advertisements running in The Advocate-Messenger promoting the five different freedoms the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees each of us.

You may be wondering why it’s important to talk about the First Amendment. We can hear some asking right now, “Shouldn’t awareness campaigns be about new things people don’t know about? Not settled, centuries-old U.S. law? And shouldn’t they raise awareness about problems? Not good things we already have?”

To those questions we answer, “You’re absolutely right.” But you’re overlooking the fact there are current problems that threaten our First Amendment rights today — which is exactly why we’re trying to raise awareness.

The biggest problem is public understanding of what the First Amendment guarantees. Too often, people think all the First Amendment means is that everyone has a right to say what they want. While that’s an OK summary of the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment, it doesn’t really capture how amazing that freedom is; and it doesn’t even touch on the other four freedoms.

Thinking the First Amendment means you can say what you want is kind of like thinking the only pizza topping is pepperoni. It may be a very popular topping choice, but there’s a much bigger world out there beyond pepperoni.

If freedom of speech is the pepperoni on our freedom pizza, freedom of religion is the cheese. That’s because the idea behind freedom of religion (which includes freedom from religion) is fundamental to everything else in the First Amendment. Without cheese, a pizza just doesn’t look like pizza.

Freedom of religion doesn’t just mean you can go to church if you want — it’s way bigger than that. It means we are each entitled to think how we wish to think and believe what we want to believe. Our government is not allowed to be in the business of thought control.

Freedom of speech builds on top of our freedom of religion. Freedom of speech means not only can we think what we want to, we can express those thoughts publicly and the government can’t stop us.

And we still have more toppings to add:

• freedom of the press guarantees we can take the things we think and say and distribute them for mass consumption by others;

• freedom of assembly guarantees the government can’t stop us from acting on our shared beliefs by gathering together and taking collective action; and

• freedom of petition guarantees that our protected actions include telling our government what it should or should not do.

So clearly, the First Amendment is far more important and comprehensive than most people understand. But why does it matter if people don’t understand the depth of the freedoms they’re entitled to?

Because it leaves us all at greater risk of losing those freedoms.

Almost one in three Americans — 31 percent — told The First Amendment Center in 2018 that the First Amendment goes too far in its protections. Fewer than half of all Americans support the First Amendment’s freedom of religion protection for all faiths, according to the same 2018 survey.

Those statistics are proof that large numbers of Americans misunderstand the First Amendment and the protections it gives them. As a result, it leaves the First Amendment vulnerable to attack from authoritarians with designs on controlling what you do, say and think.

If you’d like to keep your independence and freedoms, we hope you’ll join us in using and celebrating your First Amendment rights this month — and every month. We need everyone to understand there’s more to our freedom pizza than pepperoni.