Celebrate the birthday of the Bill of Rights

Published 8:27 am Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Column: Gene Policinski, Inside the First Amendment

Give the First Amendment – and the nation – a unique gift this holiday season: On Dec. 15, “tweet” your support for this 220-year old guarantor of our basic freedoms.

And don’t stop there … round out the holidays by making that 140-character pledge the first step in a New Year’s commitment to better understand and defend year-round those precious 45 words that define our core freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Gene Policinski

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What’s the reason to make the First Amendment part of the season?

For one thing, Dec. 15 is the 220th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, beginning with the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of expression and freedom of religion. That’s an event deserving in its own right of glitter and tinsel.

More urgently, it’s a chance to challenge and maybe change a sad result of national surveys the First Amendment Center has conducted since 1997. In all that time, never more than six percent in any year could name all five freedoms unaided.

We live in times in which the First Amendment never has been more on display – or more contested.

There are the yearly Yule concerns over religious-themed songs and carols at public school holiday pageants, but also the miraculous example to the world of multiple faiths in one nation peaceably observing holy days and holidays alongside one another.

There are Occupy Wall Street demonstrators exercising their rights to speak freely, to assemble and to petition the government for change – in the manner of generations of Americans who have taken to the streets to make their voices heard.

The U.S. Supreme Court soon will decide a dispute over what we can see and hear on broadcast TV. Meanwhile, we’re all “a-Twitter” over how private are our personal facts and messages. And the fight goes on over how public are our public records.

The Internet, email, Facebook and Twitter have brought new concerns about smut, identity theft and hate speech, all while also giving us an unparalleled opportunity to talk with our fellow citizens – provided that government does not get in the way.

Has there ever been a time when all five of our First Amendment freedoms were more in play?

The “Free to Tweet” initiative is an unprecedented, day-long online call to the American public to stand up on Dec. 15 for these fundamental freedoms. High school and college students nationwide, ages 14 to 22, get a bonus for participating: Expressing themselves freely with the hash tag #freetotweet on Twitter will mean an opportunity to win one of 22 scholarships each worth $5,000. (Find more details on the initiative and the competition at www.freetotweet.org).

For more than two centuries, the First Amendment has been protecting our right to speak out. Let’s do just that on Dec. 15!


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: gpolicinski@fac.org.