The First Amendment: The Clear and Present Danger and a Freedom Worth Defending

By Linda Vega

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.

I don’t believe in censorship.  I also don’t believe that we have the right to drown out the voice of someone simply because we disagree with their point of view. On a daily basis, people practice their “1st Amendment Right” believing that it is a freedom of speech from the government.  We fail to realize that it is also a freedom to speak without the fear of being ostracized or attacked, by fellow citizens because we have different points of view on issues or candidates, for instance.   My freedom of speech, therefore, means that your freedom of speech ends at the point where my constitutional right to be free from people’s hostility begins, even if we disagree on issues.

The idea that you can utter falsities or obscene words because someone else will not agree with you is not “protected speech,” but rather aggressive harassment meant to intimidate another individual.  The path to discussion becomes muddy when told that you are “not a good American,” because you will not join in political bashing or worse because you dare to speak on issues that are controversial.  A different point of view is not a disloyalty to this country, but a freedom that is not found anywhere else in the world.  Our right to speak a different idea, protest, or even protect our Political Party of choice is not treason, it is a freedom.  And while we may be tempted to utter “angry words” or obscenities because we cannot convince others to think like us, we should remember that those words we utter, should not infringe on the rights of others who are also protected by that freedom.  In fact, their rights include being free of fear or intimidation to express their own ideas and opinions that are as much in the protection zone as are mine.  In fact, that protection by the 1st amendment covers the unjust intrusion of government and fellow citizens on the right to be free of fear.  And if we read well into it, it even protects our right to speak up about our voting power.

Social Media provides us with an arena to communicate with each other at various hours and about various things including politics.  However, it is also a venue where we often hurl insults and cause more damage via verbal abuse, instead of finding a solution for current issues.   It is like a computerized gladiator combat at times.  As a result, the  innovative solutions are drowned out with the vulgarities of anger that sinks the idea of communication and dialogue into one of fear.   How did we get here?  Is this what the 1st amendment was intended to protect or rather how is it that my freedom of speech has become conditioned upon the approval of others?

 If we read the 1st amendment, it starts by restricting Congress in supporting one form of religion over another.  However, it also goes on to provide for the freedom of speech to individuals in writing, the press, assembling, or even filing a grievance with the government.  But as stated earlier it is a freedom that comes with great responsibilities while protecting them from the transgressions of others who may believe that their liberties have no responsibilities. But all freedoms come with responsibilities. If we allow those transgressions to overcome us with fear, we will become immobile, unable to go forward to move into that area of action.  We will fear going to vote because if someone knows for whom we vote and they do not agree with our choice, we could get ostracized.  That fear, then keeps us from voicing our opinion and our vote.

In 1919, a case was decided under the 1st Amendment and it would forever change the idea, but would also give rise to the idea of “clear and present danger.”   Under, Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47, 39 S.Ct. 247, 63 L.Ed.2d. (1919),  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes set forth the standard about what we are not allowed to falsely state in public that would incite fear.  Justice Holmes  states the following in the case: “falsely shouting fire in a theatre” and set forth a “clear and present danger test” to judge whether speech is protected by the First Amendment. “The question,” he wrote, “is whether the words are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has the right to prevent. It is a question of proximity and degree.”  Thus, so long as the speech does not incite a horrendous injustice to violence, it will be protected by the Constitution and the American people.  It is our standard, for how we respond, utter, and discuss our opinions.

The reasoning, perhaps, in this case was not so much a protection from the Federal Government, but a misuse of words that would instill an act of violence to many.  Words often times lead us to anger, which in turn leads to the suppression of freedoms by bullying tactics, and that is not freedom.  It is an irrational fear that causes us to have bad behavior, which in turn causes us to lash out at one another.  Not only do we have a right to express ourselves, but we have a right to disagree and engage in discussions for the sake of creating a better government.  In silencing our opinions, we then give way to suppression of our freedom to those who speak out against our point of view, and against our desired change in politics. So when next time someone calls you “un-American” because you speak your mind, kindly remind them that you are practicing a right for which many have died protecting, so that we can all freely live in the United States of America.

you can read more of Linda Vega’s articles on her page here>>

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