Fundamental freedoms need our protection

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 20, 2000

Recently while in our nation’s capital, I was afforded the opportunity to sit on a panel discussion concerning the First Amendment.

Sunday, August 20, 2000

Recently while in our nation’s capital, I was afforded the opportunity to sit on a panel discussion concerning the First Amendment.

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The discussion, sponsored by the First Amendment Center and held at The Freedom Forum, proved a valuable reminder of several basic rights Americans take for granted. The panel discussion also piqued my interest since we have a hot issue currently being debated in Austin that could involve the First Amendment. Of course the issue I refer to is the banning of exotic dancing.

For those not familiar with the First Amendment, it is a 45-word amendment that was ratified at the close of the 18th century. It offers American citizens five rights. It reads:

"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."

Being in the newspaper business, the First Amendment is of keen interest and value. It allows the press to operate and exist free of government censorship and intervention. In essence, it allows the press to fulfill the role of watchdog over government actions. This watchdog role was not placed in the First Amendment by some newspaper lobbyist group, but was demanded by our Founding Fathers. The reason: they were fed up with the censorship of the British press and saw a free press as a means to keep one group or person (a king) from abusing its power.

Other rights protected in the First Amendment include the right to establish and exercise a religion. Under the First Amendment it is also illegal for the government to make a law establishing an official religion, or promoting a religion in a government building.

The First Amendment also gives people the right to assemble in groups to protest peaceably, or simply to gather for discussion or other activities. Think about what our country would be like if we could not gather together.

We are also afforded the right to take up grievances with our government. This right created a role for lobbyists, who today attempt to advance a particular cause or law by meeting and discussing with government officials. The ability to redress grievances allows us the opportunity to change laws and correct items that may no longer be fair or applicable. It also affords us the ability to change our government, if we were ever so inclined. Again, this is a tremendously powerful right.

The most recognizable component of the First Amendment is the right guaranteeing freedom of speech. It is a powerful right allowing our citizenry the opportunity to express opinions and thoughts.

Unfortunately many Americans believe freedom of speech pertains only to them, or those thoughts they agree with. That’s not how it works.

"Free speech is meaningless unless it tolerates the speech that we hate," said Henry J. Hyde, a U.S. representative from Illinois, in 1991.

Hyde is absolutely right. Just because we disagree with a statement doesn’t give us a right to ban it. For next time someone may disagree with our thoughts and opinions and ban us from being heard – now that’s a frightening proposition.

Freedom of speech is the part of the First Amendment that protects exotic dancing. While we may not agree with exotic dancing and may not like exotic dancing, under the protection of the First Amendment people have just as much right to exotic dancing as they do to attend church. That said exotic dancing could be regulated on the basis of public safety and other concerns.

If we as a community were to attempt to ban exotic dancing on the basis of the First Amendment, we would be jeopardizing our right to attend church and practice a religion; our right to free speech; our right to assemble; our right to redress grievances; and our right to a free press. Think about it.

Do you really want to see the number of freedoms you enjoy reduced? It could happen.

Only once in the history of the U. S. Constitution was an amendment made prohibiting or banning activities. It was an amendment establishing prohibition, which made alcohol production and consumption illegal. We all know how well that worked and that it was later repealed.

The Founding Fathers drafted the Constitution in such a manner to offer us broad freedoms because they had more faith in the common man to decide what was just and right than they did in government.

We should welcome that responsibility and protect it every day. We shouldn’t look to give up our freedoms simply because the responsibility is some times too great.

"The true test of any nation’s commitment to freedom lies in its ability to protect unpopular expression," said John Conyers Jr., a U.S. representative from Michigan, in 1999.

His words ring true. We as a community need to pass the test, because the alternative is far worse and far more dangerous.