It’s interesting to me how the effects of an event can continue to be felt, like aftershocks of an earthquake, long after the event occurred. I still hear people talking about Charlottesville and how the white supremacist protestors’ first amendment rights were infringed upon.
No, they weren’t.
So I decided to take a moment to talk about the first amendment, and what it really means. I also don’t mind taking a break from my MFA work to #WriteBacktoFightBack.
The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads as follows:
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.
Let’s take a minute to unpack this amendment, and the language the founders used when they wrote it.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
Congress isn’t allowed to tell you what religion to practice if any.
or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press
Congress isn’t allowed to tell you that you can’t say something. It isn’t allowed to say the press can’t print or say something.
or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Congress isn’t allowed to stop people from peacefully protesting. It can’t stop anyone from petitioning the Government if something the Government is doing is irksome.
The Constitution is a Contract Between the Government and the People
Notice that the first amendment begins with “Congress.” It doesn’t say “The People shall make…” The whole document is like a contract, or agreement, between the government and the people. It stipulates how the government can treat the people, and vice versa.
So, here’s what this means for what happened in Charlottesville back in August:
- Congress could not tell either the white supremacist protestors or the anti-protestors that they couldn’t gather or speak out.
- The anti-protestors were not infringing on the protestors’ first amendment rights when they shouted over them or stood against them.
It’s impossible for The People to infringe on someone’s freedom of speech because that freedom is only guaranteed in the relationship between The People and the Government. It’s not guaranteed between The People and The People.
In other words, if I say the sky is blue and you think it’s purple, you can shout it’s purple at the top of your lungs until you drown out my voice–and you’re not infringing on my first amendment rights.
Screaming “Fire!” in a Crowded Room
As The People, we have an inherent and assumed responsibility to others that when we exercise the rights guaranteed to us by our nation’s Constitution, we do so without causing undue harm to others.
Basically, if you get up in the middle of a crowded room and scream, “Fire!” when there is no fire, you are using your freedom of speech to harm others. By all means, if there is fire, warn everyone and help them exit in an orderly manner. But if you cry wolf, and someone gets trampled to death, on your head be it.
When the protestors gathered in Charlottesville to spew hate speech, that was akin to shouting “Fire!” in a crowded room when there wasn’t even a wisp of smoke. In that case, anyone who was there had a duty to speak out against them.
There were no fine people on the side of the white supremacists that day. I wouldn’t want to be in a movie theater with any of them when one of them gets up and screams “Fire!” because they would just go along with it.
Therefore, in addition to not having their first amendment rights infringed upon, the white supremacist protestors used those same rights in an irresponsible manner.
Share Your Thoughts
Have you had someone tell you that they feel for those protestors because “their first amendment rights were trampled on?” What did you say? How did you react?