The First Amendment: A Civics Lesson

May 30, 2018

By Joel Sawyer
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Gather ‘round, kids! It’s time for a civics lesson. This one is on the First Amendment, which I still think is better than all the sequels. Except for maybe the 14th Amendment, which I’ll get to later.

Let’s start with an abbreviated list of some things the First Amendment does NOT do, contrary to popular belief and Twitter.

The First Amendment doesn’t give me the right to write this blog post, and to take it a step further, the First Amendment has nothing to do with any of the above.

What the First Amendment DOES do is to prevent the government from infringing on any and all of the above. You’re born with the right to do it all.

A “Right” isn’t something you give and it isn’t something that is given to you. It’s something that either comes from God or just comes from being born a human being if you’re not the religious type. Our government doesn’t “give” us the Right to Free Speech…we’re born with it. So are people in China in Russia. The difference is that we’re guaranteed the government can’t TAKE the right from us, unlike people in some other parts of the world.

It’s a real and substantive distinction that sometimes gets lost today, and it’s important because both the extreme right and extreme left have either propagated intentional misstatements of what the First Amendment is all about, or in some cases what rights even are.

In the first instance – and I think the extreme right is most guilty of this – people have come to equate the First Amendment with “I can say whatever I want without consequence,” and the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

Rosanne Barr being fired is not a free speech issue. The guy who was fired by Google after sending around a memo about gender is not a free speech issue. Laura Ingraham being boycotted is not a free speech issue.

If you say racist, offensive, or even just unpopular things (Go Patriots, Michelle Wolff is hilarious, etc.), the First Amendment doesn’t protect you from being fired. It doesn’t protect your invitation to the the neighborhood barbecue. It doesn’t protect your social media account from being blocked or banned.

To put a finer point on it, there is no First Amendment protection for being an asshole. You can do that at your own social or economic peril, but the government can’t jail you for it.

(As an even nerdier aside, technically the First Amendment only applies to Congress and not the states. It wasn’t until about 50 years after the 14th Amendment was ratified that Courts began consistently interpreting its Due Process clause as meaning that states must afford their citizens the same protections found in the Bill or Rights. So while the First Amendment protects you from Congress jailing you for speech, it’s actually the 14th that protects you from your state or local government doing the same thing. The More You Know!)

In the second instance, confusion over what a “right” even is – it being something you’re born with, that cannot be infringed upon on the government, rather than something that the government gives you – is something that is continually exploited by the political left.

Here are some unpopular facts: You don’t have a right to healthcare, you don’t have a right to a college education, and you don’t have a right to food, clothing, or shelter.

Now, I would argue (and I think most people probably would) that as a public policy matter or even as a matter of morality, the government should work to ensure healthcare, education, and housing are affordable. But that doesn’t mean any of us have a “right” to those things. I get it…saying “right” is a lot easier than saying “good public policy” and it makes for better commercials and bumper stickers, but it isn’t what the word means.

Liberals moving the football on what words mean is nothing new, though it seems to have become more aggressive as of late. But besides the definitional problem with calling those things “rights,” there’s another, more insidious issue as well.

Take education for instance. If you argue that education is a right (something government would have to give to us, since we’re not born educated), then the logical extension to this is that someone has to provide it to me. And if no one does so willingly, then the government must compel them to do so – infringing on their actual rights to fulfill my made up one.

And before anyone gets their panties in a bunch…yes, I’m absolutely in favor of every person in this county being given an excellent, taxpayer funded education. But it doesn’t make education a “right,” no matter how many times you say it.

Mislabeling good public policy as a “right” is intellectually lazy and seeks to circumvent actual discourse and debate. It’s tough to have a conversation about how far the government should go in providing healthcare and education, and at what cost. It’s easy to scream “But it’s a RIGHT!” then stick your fingers in your ears and mumble “LALALALALALA!” until the other person relents and leaves.

Speaking of free education…class dismissed. This one’s on me.

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