President-elect Donald Trump’s crusade against the First Amendment has been consistent and terrifying. He has suggested “opening up” libel laws so that he can more easily sue news organizations which speak poorly of him. He and his transition team have considered putting those of the Muslim faith on a registry. He has routinely demanded that protesters be silenced, arrested and, in some cases, beaten for expressing themselves in a largely peaceful manner. Now, he has said on Twitter that those who burn the American Flag should be thrown in jail or even have their citizenship revoked.
The First Amendment
“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.”
Everyone knows that the First Amendment protects free speech, but when one reads it in its entirety, one sees that it is perhaps the most important law in this country. So far, it has been largely upheld with little restrictions, save for speech which incites violence or is deemed obscene (which is admittedly subjective). Otherwise, the government can make no law restricting the First Amendment, but private homes and places of work, as well as social media sites, can.
Whether we like it or not, Donald Trump is the government now, or will be come the 20th of January; as President, he can impress upon Congress his notions for what should be considered law. And judging by his campaign promises, the things he believes should be law would hinder the rights of every citizen in this country.
Texas V. johnson
The Supreme Court has already decided what is considered as free speech in regards to flag burning – twice. Texas v. Johnson(1989) was a majority 5-4 decision ruling that burning the American Flag in protest was considered free speech. Greg Johnson had burned the flag in protest of the Reagan administration, and was sentenced to a year in jail under a Texas law which banned flag desecration. The Supreme Court – with recently deceased justice Antonin Scalia ruling with the majority – decided that the law was unconstitutional.
In response, Congress passed the Flag Protection Act, a law which stated the the American Flag could not be burned in protest or otherwise defaced, mutilated or trampled. The law was challenged in the case of United States v. Eichman(1990), with the same 5-4 majority decision ruling that the law was unconstitutional. The Court noted in part that, “its asserted interest is related to the suppression of free expression and concerned with the content of such expression.”
Justice Stevens wrote in his dissenting opinion that the law, “does not entail any interference with the speaker’s freedom to express those ideas by other means.” However, the law could very well have led to a slippery slope of other restrictions, and served as precedent for other attempts to undermine freedom of speech purely because there may be another way to express oneself.
The Flag is a symbol to hundreds of millions of Americans; it represents the ideals of freedom and the sacrifices made by those who have served. However, these two rulings have stated that, no matter how powerful the symbol, the government’s attempts to restrict freedom of speech in any fashion will not be upheld.
The Rights of one are the Rights of all
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.“– Martin Niemöller
The Muslim religion (which can also be referred to as Islam, but there are some differences between the two) has a worldwide population of 1.6 billion people. It’s been largely estimated that roughly 106,000 people who claim to be Muslim are a part of terrorist or other extremist groups. This amounts to one-one hundredth of one percent. Fear cannot drive the laws of the land. If 99.999 percent of Muslims are good, hard-working citizens who have a job, care for their families and attend weekly religious gatherings like any other faith does, then they should not be held accountable for the atrocities of a small few. Christians are not held accountable for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, Muslims should not be held accountable for ISIS.
In order for journalists to do their job properly, they cannot be beholden to any special interest and they have to report the truth. They need sources, data, and evidence to corroborate their stories (or at least proper journalists for credible organizations do). If someone is able to sue a journalist or the newspaper as a whole purely because something about them was printed that they did not like, then that is just one step towards Russia, North Korea or China, where freedom of the press doesn’t exist.
The key word in regards to the right to assemble is “peaceably.” Contrary to what much of the fake news would have you believe, the large majority of protesters against Trump have been peaceful. It is their right to voice their opinion, one that has been preserved for almost 250 years. The idea that Trump might undermine that right in even the smallest fashion should not settle well with anyone.
If you are a Christian, the proposed laws pertaining to Muslims do not affect you; if you are not a journalist, the proposed laws pertaining to them do not affect you; if you do not protest, or disagree with them, then the potential laws do not affect you. But if you are a citizen of the United States, regardless of your religion, profession or creed, then these laws will affect you. Restriction of the First Amendment to one person or group is a restriction of the First Amendment to all.