What I would say about the First Amendment if I were running for President.
We;ve had a lot of talk about second amendment rights in this campaign and for good reason. But, in thinking about the selection of a Supreme Court justice to replace Justice Scalia, we must also remember the importance of protecting the first amendment. That is the amendment that protects our freedom of speech, of assembly, of religion and of the press. It is simple and short . It says:
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.
Everybody likes the first amendment in the abstract, but some people find it bothersome when they don’t agree with the specific speech in question. We hear about rules on college campuses trying to outlaw offensive or irritating speech. We hear some politicians and candidates who want to sue people who say things they find irritating for infuriating. But that is the whole point of the first amendment. It protects speech that is downright offensive and infuriating. And our courts, in the past have said that the remedy for speech you don’t like is more free speech.
Let me give you an example, In 1964, in Selma Alabama, a group of citizens who included Hosea Williams, Martin Luther King, Jr. And many many others, wanted to march from Selma to Montgomery to protest the lack of voting rights for black citizens of the State of Alabama. The Governor George Wallace, a Democrat, issued an order prohibiting that March on the grounds that the March would be disruptive and offensive to many of the other citizens of Alabama. Reverend King and Hosea Williams, among others, turned to the federal courts. A courageous federal judgement Judge Frank Johnson, ruled that Governor Wallaces order prohibiting the March was a violation of the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs to peacefully petition their government for the redress of their grievances. It was an historic decision. The March took place. You can read about it if you google Williams v. Wallace.
So we protect the right of people to say what they think even when we regard their speech as odious. When the minions of Frank Phelps Westboro Baptist church decide to picket a slain soldiers’ funeral with odious and vile signs, the remedy is that the members of Rolling Thunder, a motorcycle club, also show up and provide a wall of protection for the mourners. That’s how we handle odious speech in this country.
The first amendment also protects our right to freedom of religion. Many of the founders of this country came to this new continent to escape religious oppression. Centuries. Ago when they made that long journey by ship to this new continent, there was little if any freedom of religion in Europe. If your king was a Catholic, or a Lutheran or an Anglican, then you were too. That was the law. The church and the state were one. As a matter of fact, to this day, The Church of England, is the official church of our ally the United Kingdom and her majesty bears the title of the defender of the faith. That eventually seems to have worked out for them. But we don’t do that here. There will be no Church of the United States, because of the First Amendment. We don’t believe in even a merely formalistic theocracy. The prohibition of the establishment of an official church exists to protect the religious freedom of our citizens. Each of us has the right not only to believe what we choose to believe, but to express our beliefs, and to practice our religion. It’s in the constitution. That right is not restricted to our private homes or our religious establishments. We have a long tradition and practice in this country, not necessarily mandated by the constitution, but protected by various statutes passed by congress and by the states of accommodating to different religious beliefs. When Jehovah’s witnesses refused, on religious grounds, to pledge allegiance to the flag, federal courts protected their right to follow their beliefs. When Quakers refused to serve in the Armed Forces on religious grounds, we allowed them to have conscientious objector status and to serve in non combat roles. In 1964 congress passed title Vii of the civil rights act which prohibited employers from discriminating against their employees based on their religion. So the need of Seventh day Adventists to take Saturday off has to be accommodated if it doesn’t pose an undue burden on an employer. In 1993 Congress passed and President Clinton signed, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Interestingly, the immediate stimulus for the passage of that act was to protect the right of certain native Americans to use peyote as they traditionally had in their religious practice. That act requires that the government protect the right of citizens to put their religious beliefs into practice so long as it does not pose an undue burden on the state or the rights of others. It’s a balancing test.
The law forbidding the establishment of religion has to be balanced against the law which allows the free exercise of religion. People are allowed to use public spaces to express their religious beliefs so long as the government does not play favorites and allows all religions to express their beliefs. Veterans are allowed to have crosses and stars of David on their gravestones. Citizens are allowed to erect memorials. So long as that expression is voluntary and the government does not give preference to one religion over another, or over no religion, it is all constitutionally and legally protected. WE need, in this country, to find that spirit of accommodation which has allowed all religions in this great country to thrive and has allowed people to have no religion as well. If someone wants to put up a billboard, mocking my beliefs, I don’t agree with it, but, as president, I will defend their right to do it. Because that is what freedom of speech and freedom of religion mean.
And freedom of the press. That is a very important right. It is essential to our political liberty. Our revolution was sparked and aided by leaflets and broadsides and newspapers. The First Amendment gives newspapers and magazines and individuals the right to publish mean, nasty, offensive things about me,so long as they are true. Freedom of the press gives us real political liberty. It allows for robust debates It allows each of us to persuade others to our point of view. It is essential to a functioning democracy. It can get boisterous and vulgar and sometimes ugly, but it is so much better than the stifling of speech that we can still see in other places in the world. People are not sent to jail or punished in this country for saying mean things about our leaders. We have a long and cherished tradition of liberty in this country and as President I will preserve it and protect it. I will nominate to the Supreme Court, persons who are as passionately devoted to the protection of those freedoms as I am.
Thank you and God Bless.