Honor the documents that keep us freePublished 10:11am Friday, September 14, 2012
Column: Gene Policinski, Inside the First Amendment
Constitution Day has become an annual fixture each Sept. 17 in the nation’s schools since it was mandated by Congress in 2004 — and 2012 may well be the best year yet for understanding its history and appreciating its meaning.
A few days ago, the nation took notice of the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., and the thwarted attack that ended in a Pennsylvania field. Make no mistake, the terrorists’ ultimate target was more than our national buildings and monuments, more than the thousands of innocents who died — it was our nation’s way of life, its economic system as well as its laws and freedoms.
The U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights — with its First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — were in the crosshairs of the cowards who commandeered airliners as weapons and used twisted religious bravado as justification to attack the United States and its way of life.
Eleven years later, there’s no question that ultimate attack failed, miserably.
Not more than a day after the anniversary, a perverted sense of righteousness in defense of faith — outrage over a cheap propaganda movie intended to insult Islam’s greatest figure, Muhammad — sparked extremist mobs to attack U.S. embassies in Libya and Egypt, and later to murder U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three security officers.
Within hours, the incidents and deaths had become the latest flashpoint in a caustic presidential race. And the freedoms of religion and speech were pitted against each other: Was it a misuse of free speech to produce a film portraying Muhammad as a libertine and sexual deviant, knowing it was likely to provoke violent reactions worldwide? Or was it simply an exercise of religious and political speech that, though provocative to some, falls well within the First Amendment’s protection for free expression?
But as bitter as the debate was in the United States, and as widely as it raged, there were no deaths and no riots, no mass arrests or government crisis as a result of criticism of either the Obama administration or those who produced the film.
Why? The Constitution and Bill of Rights.
A system of laws in place for more than 220 years guarantees the freedoms that are our nation’s safety valve for the release of emotional pressures on red-hot issues; that restrict any attempt by government officials to shape the debate or silence the debaters; that ensure the “marketplace of ideas” isn’t overrun by those who would burn down the stalls of those with whom they disagree.
Not long ago, that same Constitution and Bill of Rights protected the tea party marchers and Occupy Wall Street protesters who used freedom of speech and the rights of assembly and petition to challenge government policies and public officials they opposed. In other nations, arrests or brutal repression would have shut down both movements.
Even as we should marvel on Constitution Day over what those two documents mean to our lives each day, we should be in awe of what they mean for our future. The nation’s Founders drew up a legal roadmap for how our government would operate — the Constitution — and the nation adopted it only when it was accompanied by an equally strong guarantor of our individual rights, each an amazing achievement. But the greatest quality, for me, in both documents is the profound confidence those Founders put in succeeding generations.
Government was not the ultimate ruler — that final measure of power was reserved instead for the people. And if the people could freely express their beliefs and ideas to seek change, peaceably, in government … well, then the unique system of self-governance would work.
Under our Constitution, mutual respect is not mandated by gunfire and terror. Changing hearts and minds — no matter how much insult and anger are involved — is not a process of mob rule and murder. Riots do not take the place of reason.
We have our resilient Constitution and Bill of Rights to guide us in settling our disagreements and setting out our aspirations. That’s worth celebrating – not just on Sept. 17, but every day of the year.
Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212.