All Americans have heard of the Boston Tea Party. The dumping of tea into the harbor was an act of defiance against the government of Britain, a protest. Our country was founded on the idea of freedom. Our first amendment in the Bill of Rights beautifully and succinctly outlines the rights of every citizen in only forty five words. “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.”
It is sometimes difficult to accept the spirit of the First Amendment, especially when someone is espousing ideas that run counter to our own, but our Founding Fathers rather wisely understood that to have true liberty we must be willing to hear differing points of view. Of late there have been a number of incidents that have troubled various factions but in each case the First Amendment has protected the perpetrators just as it should.
Our President-Elect voiced his disapproval of those who burn the flag of the United States, even indicating his belief that there should be a law making such defamations illegal. The reality is that the Supreme Court has on more than one occasion upheld the right to demonstrate dissatisfaction by setting the flag on fire. There is nothing illegal about doing so and to pass a law making it a crime would be to wander from the original intent of the men who set up our rules. While it may be an odious gesture in some people’s minds it actually demonstrates the free exercise of democracy in one of its most dramatic forms. I believe that it is a powerful sign of the extreme liberty that we all enjoy even though it is something that I would never choose to do.
The protests at Standing Rock are yet another indication that our First Amendment rights are alive and well. In a wonderful bit of irony it has been our Native Americans whose ancestors did not enjoy the perks of citizenship who have used the very tactics that those early patriots in Boston demonstrated before the Revolutionary War began. Whether we agree with their cause or not, they have every right to peacefully voice their grievances. Their chanting is yet another beautiful display of the rights that all of us possess. To even consider that they should not be allowed to show their disdain is to chip away at the First Amendment and all that it implies.
Most recently the founder of the Alt Right spoke at Texas A&M University. He was not invited or sanctioned by the university but simply rented space on campus much as many different groups and organizations regularly do. His invective and ideas are despicable and fly in the face of all for which we should stand as decent human beings but when all is said and done he has every right to spew his hateful speech. To think otherwise is to question the validity of our Bill of Rights. As painful as it may seem to hear the rantings of such an individual, the intent of the authors of the First Amendment was to allow every one of us to have a voice, even those whose words are vile.
I find the Alt Right to be disgusting in every possible way but I also want to know what such people are thinking. It is important that we know their thoughts for it is only in realizing what they are about that we will be able to combat them with reason and truth. Simply shutting them down will only drive them underground and make them even more menacing.
Universities in particular should be centers of the free exchange of ideas, even those that are questionable. Students should learn how to critically assess philosophies and beliefs. Being shielded from the words of deplorable individuals only shelters young people from reality rather than teaching them how to deal with it. At Texas A&M a contingent of students and faculty members met the Alt-Right head on with a counter rally that was five times larger than the one held by the white supremacist group. In a peaceful manner they registered their dissent while still adhering to the basic tenets of freedom of speech.
Years ago I took my young daughter to the University of Texas in Austin where she was enrolled as a freshman. As we walked around campus we came upon a free speech area that had been an integral part of the campus for decades. We learned that this was a spot where all students had the right to express their opinions. Out of respect for liberty they would be safe regardless of how absurd their beliefs might be. I saw this sanctuary as a sign that the university was a fountain of learning and excellence and I was happy that my daughter would be in such a place. It did not matter to me what she might hear there, only that she would be exposed to a multitude of ideas from which to ultimately form her own.
Our First Amendment allows me to write about my own thinking each day. If I point out the flaws of our political leaders I am safe as long as I do not threaten them. If I state my religious views I am safe as long as I do not advocate forcing others to agree with me. It is an amazing gift to be able to be so freely open with my ideas. There are few places on earth where the citizens are so protected in that regard and if I were ever to fight fiercely for any concept it would be to preserve the liberty invoked by that incredible and brilliant addition to our Constitution.
I believe that it is up to each of us to stand firm in protecting the rights of our First Amendment. Sometimes it is difficult to take some of the people and groups who enjoy the same liberties as we do, but it is necessary to speak out for them as well. We don’t have to agree with what they believe or have to say but we must affirm their right to do so. The very fact that we continue to have reasons to discuss these rights is evidence that our freedoms are still very much alive and well. The day that we infringe them will be the day that we should all take to the streets in protest just as our Founding Fathers and all patriotic Americans would expect us to do.