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Opinion: students cannot be ignorant to the First Amendment


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A Maroon editor asked me to write 400 words on the First Amendment, suggesting that our students know little about the Bill of Rights in general or the First Amendment in particular. What needs to be said to begin to understand the First Amendment can take an entire semester and an entire course; at least I’ve not been asked to distil it down to 143 characters, though I’ve already gone beyond the limit many students can process (and worse, no emojis.)

Justice William Brennan argued that the Founders included a free speech clause in the Bill of Rights for two reasons: (1) free speech is indispensable to democratic government, and (2) self-expression is a fundamental component of human dignity. Democratic self-government is in danger if freewheeling and uninhibited discussion of matters of public concern is absent. And respect for the equal dignity of each human being requires toleration of individual’s speech even when that expression is overwhelmingly unpopular.

More recently, Burt Neuborne described the First Amendment as “a chronological description of the arc of a democratic idea—from conception to codification.” The two religion clauses protect freedom of thought. Individual interaction with the community then develops from expression of an idea by an individual to mass transmission of that idea by a free press to collective action by the people supporting that idea to the culmination (in the petition clause)—introduction of the idea into the formal process of democratic lawmaking.

A free press transmits important ideas but also provides information vital to public deliberation about the idea. Deliberative democracy is a charade without an informed citizenry. And a government bent on oppression has no better tactic than delegitimization of the press by shrill accusations of “fake news” whenever a fact the government does not like is reported. (Time to haul out the “alternative facts.”)

The other ally of such a government is ignorant citizens, and Facebook, Twitter, 90% of what is on television, a good deal of what is on the internet and similar distractions do little to eliminate this ignorance. They deepen it.

Contemporary First Amendment protections are much broader than the understandings of Madison and the Framers. In large part, that is because of the U.S. Supreme Court, beginning in the early decades of the 20th century, elucidated a series of interpretations that made the Amendment the bedrock of the democratic process that it is today.

But what the Court giveth the Court can take away. For the next four years, at least potential appointees will have to face a litmus test of willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade, and a Justice who will do that likely will have few qualms about reversing cases that have protected the rights of women, African-Americans, LGBTQ persons and the First Amendment rights of all of us.

One hopes readers who did not know all of this will seek to learn more. Ignorance is curable, but willful ignorance can be insuperable, and fatal to our democracy.

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Opinion: students cannot be ignorant to the First Amendment