“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.” – US Constitution, First Amendment
Most people know this sentence. They memorized it in middle school US History class, they have seen it recited by extremist political news stations that purposefully misconstrue facts to build their favor, they hear protesters standing outside of funerals for fallen soldiers using it to defend their heinous comments. Recently it has been used to praise Kim Davis, condemn Barack Obama, and bring many questionable pop stars to the limelight. On social media, it has become a rampant excuse for cyber bullying and hate speech. After all, it is the right of the people to voice their opinion, even if it is terribly, horribly wrong, isn’t it?
The First Amendment was created for a few different reasons. 1) The founders of America were oppressed and prosecuted for beliefs and for speaking freely. In this new country, the founding fathers didn’t want to go through the same harassment as they had received in a place ruled by a potentially strong-handed monarchy. 2) Many states had already created declarations that to establish true liberty, the government would need to be checked by the public. To do this, the press would need to be able to speak freely and inform the public of activities without the threat or imprisonment or death. In reality, the First Amendment was written to check the government and keep us united and free.
Today, however, this amendment is all too often cited to oppress others – the exact opposite of what it was intended for. Thanks to the growth of social media, free speech has become an excuse to harass others for what they believe, how they look, and who they are as a person. This, in turn, has essentially taken away other American’s First Amendment rights. A gay boy may live in fear of torment from peers if he were to tell anyone that he has come out. A Nigerian Muslim just might have to watch his back for posting the phrase “Allah is good.” Even an agnostic woman must be wary of posting “Happy Holidays” lest she receive backlash towards her company for not posting “Merry Christmas!” Sure, they technically have the right to say what they want, but with the attacks from others trying to claim free speech as they attack innocent people really giving others the right to speak freely?
Maybe it is time we revisit Philadelphia on September 17, 1787. We should peek back at the oppression that was placed upon Protestants for simply believing in a different style of church. When you get ready to post “These illegal Mexicans are nothing but trouble” on a funny viral video with Spanish being spoken in the background, you should think “how did my forefathers feel about their lack of rights?” Just because you have the RIGHT to speak doesn’t mean you HAVE to speak. Take a breath, let it go, ignore the hate – you’re better than that. For once, let that person express their First Amendment rights without your backlash. And always remember what Thumper said “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.”
Nicole Firebaugh | @nicole_fir