The smell of gunpowder hangs in the air, and the gutters overflow with torn and tattered paper alongside bits of burned cardboard. Clearly, the Fourth of July isn’t too far in the rearview mirror.
Though the Independence Day festivities celebrate the 1776 adoption of the Declaration of Independence to break away from Great Britain, it is more than an opportunity to light fireworks and display flags and banners of the United States of America.
It’s a time to remember the rights citizens of America are afforded thanks to the country’s founders being brave enough to fight for freedom.
Crucial to our country is the Bill of Rights, which consists of the first 10 amendments of the United States Constitution, and one of these amendments gets invoked frequently, though such mentions don’t always arise in proper context.
It’s the First Amendment, and it grants us five rights: free speech, free press, freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
These freedoms are fundamental to how our society functions. As David Hudson wrote for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, “Freedom of speech is important for the proper functioning of a constitutional democracy.”
I couldn’t agree more. However, I’m seeing too many people claiming free speech when it doesn’t apply.
For example, I recently saw a thread on Facebook where a person was defending what they posted by asserting it was their First Amendment right to share what they wrote, but that’s not entirely true.
The First Amendment exists to prevent the government from infringing upon the rights of the populace. City councils and county commissions are the government. Public schools are an extension of the government. Public colleges and universities are an extension of the government.
But Facebook is not.
It’s a private company. Sure, its stocks might be publicly traded, but it is a private company in the sense it isn’t an arm of the government. That means it can set its own rules and policies that it enforces through various actions such as banning users or deleting posts.
It’s no different than when a local restaurant or Walmart requires customers to wear shirts and shoes inside its establishment.
Unfortunately, people seem to misunderstand this. Whether in-person or online, the First Amendment is being invoked when it has no place in the conversation.
Regardless, all forms of expression — speech, writing, performance, et cetera — can carry consequences. Though a person might be able to say whatever they want, they aren’t protected from how others react.
Even if it is an individual’s right to say something inflammatory to another human being, that doesn’t dictate how the receiver of that expression is going to respond. In the worst-case scenario, the result could be a physical altercation or more.
It’s the threat of violence that allows the government to censor certain forms of expression in narrow and specific instances.
Here is how Greenky explained it: “When the rights and liberties of others are in serious jeopardy, speakers who provoke others into violence, wrongfully and recklessly injure reputations or incite others to engage in illegal activity may be silenced or punished.”
I’m a huge proponent of the First Amendment. It’s a cornerstone of what makes this country so special. It is the reason people can choose what church they go to on Sunday or decide to simply stay home and avoid religion altogether. It is the reason that peaceful protests can take place, and, most importantly to me and my career, it provides the foundation for journalism to exist as a watchdog to hold those in power accountable for their actions, which is why the press is referred to as the “Fourth Estate” alongside the three branches of government.
Is journalism perfect? No. Though some would be sure to disagree with me, I know society would be worse off without the press despite its misgivings. After all, there’s a reason that local news outlets are more trusted than their national counterparts. This is because local journalists live in the communities they cover, and they care about the people they provide news to, which happen to be the same individuals they see at the grocery store or the post office.
But, the good national journalists care too. They want to get it right. They are driven by the desire to inform the public by providing accurate and trustworthy news.
More than anything, though, all journalists want to safeguard the rights of the First Amendment, which means preventing government interference with the freedoms afforded to us all and holding officials’ feet to the fire to ensure they don’t trample on the citizens they purport to represent.
When citizens misuse the concepts of the First Amendment, it diminishes the value of those rights, and that leads to the breakdown of civil society to the point where people cannot have level-headed conversations and reasonable disagreements, leaving nothing but hatred and division in its wake.
Strive to engage in dialogue with differing viewpoints to find common ground because we all want our communities, country, and society to succeed. Just do so armed with the knowledge of how our rights work, especially the First Amendment.
So each Fourth of July as you celebrate our country’s independence by blowing up small pieces of it, remember all the rights we are afforded. Don’t let vitriolic rhetoric or misconceptions about the First Amendment ignite verbal artillery shells that explode through our freedoms and scorch the fields of democracy.
Our rights are precious. We must take care of them. It’s our responsibility. We must protect them year-round, even if Independence Day serves as a flashing beacon and reminder.
Todd Vogts is a native of Canton, a resident of McPherson County, and an assistant professor of media at Sterling College. He can be contacted with questions or comments via his website at www.toddvogts.com.