Hooray for the First Amendment!

It’s quite amazing how the Constitution of our country seems to come through—even to skeptics who think it’s an antiquated or unrealistic set of principles. While those who don’t support its freedoms try numerous tricks and subterfuge to undermine it (unfortunately, with some success), it nonetheless remains an extraordinary living and breathing document. The most precarious of these principles, particularly “in time of war” is the First Amendment, dealing with the right of free speech. That’s the one that reads,
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 of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
It seems that we have recently seen so many challenges to our rights and freedom in this country by the very people who are in charge of its government and are supposed to be preserving and protecting those very rights as defined by our constitution. They are often the very people who do not want the voices of the people to be raised in free and open exchange of ideas or criticism. Consider: All Saints Church in Pasadena, where its Pastor spoke openly against the war in Iraq and the IRS tried to challenge its tax-exempt status. Just this week, the IRS announced it was withdrawing its coercive effort. Then there is Erwin Chemerinsky, the highly regarded constitutional scholar who was chosen to be the Dean of the newly created U.C. Irvine Law School, only to see his apppointment withdrawn by the Chancellor of the University in response to right-wingers who disagree with Chemerinsky’s interpretation of the Constitution. But freedom of speech prevailed and after great public outcry, that appointment was properly restored.

And then we have the contrived assault on an organization that dared to challenge the accuracy of a report to Congress about the Iraqi War from its general in charge. By playing off of General Patreus’ name, MoveOn.org questioned whether or not he should be called General “Betray us”, given his less than straight-forward or candid assessment of what is truly going on in Iraq. Did MoveOn have the right to say what it did? Absolutely. Was it controversial and perhaps in “bad taste”. Was the young man who challenged Senator Kerry in Florida slightly obnoxious? While many of us might find the comments and behavior to be distasteful and wouldn’t have approached the discussion in similar fashion, where in the Constitution does it say you have to be polite in the exercise of one’s right to speak? But this is all obfuscation and distraction from the real issue here: The Truth.
Was the information in Move-On’s article accurate? Was the challenge to Patreus’ claims legitimate? Did MoveOn have the constitutional right to do what it did? The answer is an unequivocal yes. Remember, this ad was simple speech, well-documented allegations and challenges to a stone-deaf administration that refuses to listen to the American people or acknowledge what the rest of the world has long known: This war has been a complete failure
Did their ad rise to the level of a Congressional rebuke? Absolutely not. But it would be hard to challenge the facts that they so studiously included . So, in keeping with the way the Bush administration and its apologists respond whenever they are caught with their hands in the cookie jar, they attacked the messenger, since they can’t attack the message because it is true. Think of Richard Holbrook, Joe Wilson (and Valerie Plame), just to name a few who have been vilified for speaking the truth about this administration’s lies and deceptions.
Shouldn’t we be focused instead on the CONTENT of the objection, rather than either the messenger, in MoveOn’s case (a liberal group)or the delivery of that message? The answer for MoveOn’s supporters is clearly “yes” and we are likely to see more, rather than fewer attacks on the administration’s orchestrated misinformation in the days and weeks ahead.
But for proof of the real success and genius of this country’s set of principles, as embodied by Article One of the Bill of Rights we need only to look to the response to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks at Columbia University yesterday. Clearly, the man is a loose cannon. His claims and statements are not credible and he did not serve his cause well. But isn’t it better to let him speak, to allow the people to see for themselves just who and what this divisive and out-of-touch demagogue really is? Shouldn’t we be trusting that the people can decide for themselves after hearing all points-of-view? Ahmadinejad may be a madman, but he’s also the leader of a very significant player in the Middle East. Isn’t it better to know the enemy, see how he thinks and thus be better equipped to deal with him? Or is it just for the “decider” to know—since we can surely trust his judgment and understanding of what motivates this hostile regime to do what it does and threatens to do?
And isn’t this exactly what America has stood for in the world–a place where people can come and express their differences in a peaceful yet passionate way, without fear of reprisal or sanction? We can differ, and we must often agree to disagree, but one thing we should not disagree about is the power and sanctity of the First Amendment to our Constitution. We are a nation with a proud tradition of openness. We understand that speech is basically the articulation of ideas and opinions. It is why we let people speak when their hearts are full of hate and anger; why we allow people to stand on soap boxes and express opinions that are neither logical or coherent; It is, after all, what we are fighting for when we call out to protect liberty and freedom.
We must remember, however, that the fight for those freedoms begins first at home. Let us not forget that this right is what sets us apart from countries like Iran where there is no such freedom to dissent. It is our glorious tradition of openness and candor that is among our greatest contributions to the world. With that freedom we have been able to discuss, debate and disagree our way into greatness of purpose and action. This is the gift our Founding Fathers gave us. This is the great tradition that nations have tried either to squelch through dictatorship or emulate through democracy. We are its bastion and its protector. We must rejoice in the debate and not allow those in power to destroy it. Otherwise, we become like the nations we so reject–where there is no freedom and no opportunity for dissent, nations like Iran. We are better and must be better. Let us honor the tradition of openness in America. It has always served us well.