Interlude: First Amendment Freedoms Survive Serious Attacks

On this fourth of July, it’s a good time to take a tiny break from the school choice issue and reflect on some patriotic themes.  While most Americans get caught up in the lovely trappings of the 4th—fireworks, barbecues, all that red, white, and blue—it’s also important to keep in mind the basis of the celebration.  Two hundred thirty-one years ago the United States began its fight for independence facing long odds against the world’s sole superpower.  With our unlikely victory, a chain of events was set in motion that ended with a new birth of liberty.

To this very day, our Declaration of Independence and Constitution remain America’s chief contributions to civilization by providing not only lofty ideals but a working blueprint for peaceful, prosperous, and free society.

Part of the greatness of our Constitution—some would say the greatness—lies in the protection of the right to criticize the government, ensuring that freedom of discourse and public reasoning mean that our elected officials will always be able to hear when something is wrong and, hopefully, respond.  (If not, our right to kick the bums out of office is also a handy feature of the Constitution.)   It’s no exaggeration to say that free expression, even against the government, is what America’s all about.

So it was sad a few years ago when modern American politicians acted like petty ruling clique of some half-civilized backwater and moved to limit free expression.  Striking a direct blow against our right to criticize the government prior to an election was a dastardly and un-American thing to do.

Fortunately the First Amendment was wounded but not killed.  Last week the Supreme Court ruled that at least part of McCain-Feingold speech restrictions were unconstitutional, illegal, and being pushed back.

Meanwhile, another attempt to suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights—the deceptively named “Fairness Doctrine”—has just been defeated by our elected representatives in Congress.  Bully for them!

It’s not clear that the First Amendment is out of the woods yet.  The patient is recovering but by no means back to full health.  Still, on this fourth of July, let’s be thankful for the freedoms we still have and hopeful about the ones we may yet win back.


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