The First Amendment to the Constitution: A Phrase of Rights and Responsibility
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The First Amendment to the Constitution: A Phrase of Rights and Responsibility

What does the First Amendment offer to and expect from American citizens?

"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."

The text of the First Amendment reads as a glorious step on the path of transition from aristocracy and monarchy to democracy and freedom. Who, then, provides the oversight to ensure that the Constitutional rights of citizens are not being trampled upon? The last two phrases reveal that it is the responsibility of citizens to assert their own rights; although it is the responsibility of the judicial branch to interpret law, citizens must bring cases and situations into the light of the judiciary's attention in order for them to receive a fair hearing.

Thus, through inattention and apathy, citizens' rights can be trampled upon. In the history of our country, however, there were times when rights were trampled upon not just by accident, but in a deliberate manner. For example, the Three-Fifths Compromise was one granted to the Southern cotton states, which had a high slave population, in order to hold the Constitution and the resulting Union together. Yet, in the same Constitutional Convention, the founders discussed the Bill of Rights, which guaranteed the rights of all, not simply white male landowners. Societal paradigms can override true freedom and democracy; the case of women and minority rights during the first two centuries of our country's history is a perfect example.

In what forum, then, do citizens have the right to address a law or decision if they believe it is trampling their Constitutional rights? The First Amendment answers this as well: by guaranteeing the right of citizens to peaceably assemble, it ensures that citizens can create their own forum and petition for a redress of grievances. The Southern states that rebelled against the U.S. government certainly assembled and petitioned for a redress of grievances, but their manner of assembly was not peaceable in any way, shape, or form. A martial solution is never an answer to a political problem, especially because the government with which a group of citizens has a problem typically retains a standing army as well. The First Amendment clearly indicates that a redress of grievances must be pursued in a peaceable, petitionary manner.

When a law is made, is it Constitutionally perfect? The drafters of the Constitution understood that this is not the case; they therefore included the judicial branch as the responsible body for "interpreting" law; that is, the judicial branch decides whether or not laws are in accordance with the Constitution. Are court decisions Constitutionally sound? Just by examining history, we can see that courts have repeatedly reversed their decisions (the cases of Plessy v. Ferguson ["separate but equal"] and Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka [integrate with "all deliberate speed"] are perfect examples). When the Constitutional process has not reached a fair and Consitutional decision, then, this is where the First Amendment implies that citizens must stand up and peaceably assemble to assert their rights. Martin Luther King Jr.'s freedom rallies are perfect examples of peaceable assembly for a redress of grievances, especially in the midst of a violent era.

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Comments (2)

Our forefathers knew what they were doing, they put a lot of thought and care in to the constitution. Good write up.

Thank you!