America honors it’s soldiers with Memorial Day and Veterans Day; honors the birth of the nation with July 4th celebrations; honors the workers of America with Labor Day; and gives thanks for innumerable blessings on Thanksgiving.
In an age when there is a gluttony of talk on “values”, perhaps a day when America stops her daily routine to reflect, celebrate, and bring to the forefront a greater respect for the values that define America is appropriate.
The national identity of the United States – our identity as a people – is built on the five pillars of 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 redress of grievances.”
In a 2006 survey, only twenty-five percent of American adults could name more than one of the five pillars of the First Amendment; another survey in 2013 showed thirty-six percent of Americans could not name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Parents of local school children are familiar with the Six Pillars of Character program that has been adopted by schools nationwide. These pillars are identified as trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship – values traditionally instilled in the home rather than the classroom.
It is a common cycle in history that each generation insists on reinventing the wheel, and that sentiment can be attached to our present educational system that seeks to “teach” character.
The purpose of a public education – supported by public tax dollars – is primarily to produce good citizens; or, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I have indeed two great measures at heart, without which no republic can maintain itself in strength: 1. That of general education, to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom. 2. To divide every county into hundreds, of such size that all the children of each will be within reach of a central school in it.”
Perhaps the First Amendment, besides guaranteeing freedoms, can be the basis for instilling character in our children – and guaranteeing that our freedoms continue.
Here’s a DIY guide how the First Amendment can be used to teach character.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion:
This is the first pillar because a person’s religion, their relationship with God, their belief system, is the most important part of who they are as a person – this must be respected. No one should ever experience injustice, prejudice, or be judged by others based on this most highly personal relationship. These beliefs are more important than friends, family or country – and so this is the first pillar.
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech:
This is the second pillar – next to our personal religious beliefs – and this is the right to share what we believe, share what we think, share what we dream. It is the right the leads to scientific advancement, personal fulfillment, and improves our society – though it can also do great harm to others.
The right to free speech involves responsibility – by law and tradition. We are not free to threaten people, we are not free to create chaos, we are not free to slander or defame others.
The spirit of free speech means showing respect by listening to others and giving them the same respect we want.
Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom…of the press:
In the old days, “freedom of the press” meant the written word. Men like Thomas Paine and Ben Franklin printed material that helped gain support for the American Revolution.
The written word is a powerful influence, and the emergence of the Internet has expanded the understanding of “freedom of the press” far beyond what our parents ever imagined.
Spoken words last a few moments, but the written words can last forever. When we write, we need to be more thoughtful, because the words will be shared with others; when we write, we write for the whole world to see, we write for history to record us forever.
Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people peaceably to assemble:
From the days of the American Revolution, through the fight of women to vote, the protesters for civil rights and those against the Vietnam War. From the beginning, the right to peaceably assemble has played a major role in American history.
People are free to gather together to support a cause or to protest an injustice.
This is a very important right because when people come together, when people stand shoulder to shoulder in public, it attracts attention. When people come together, other people stop and look – they ask questions, they want to know why.
The key component here is peaceful, like Martin Luther King, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton…those brave enough to put themselves on the line.
Congress shall make no law…abridging…the right of the people…to petition the government for redress of grievances.
We have the right to petition – to complain. In this world, everyone will rarely agree on everything, so there will be disagreements. If people believe a law is unfair, they can petition the government to fix it, change it, or abolish it.
Petition means not only to collect signatures, but to advocate, make your case, explain your reasons – try and convince others that what you believe makes sense.
Here are some ideas from the website Free Speech Week.org on how to honor and/or celebrate our right to free speech:
- Write a letter to your senator or representative about an issue important to you.
- Express your opinion at an open town hall or education board meeting.
- Write a blog post.
- Display a bumper sticker.
- Write a short story or poem, or create a piece of art.
- Post a sign or flag in your front yard.
- Research candidates and ballot measures for an upcoming election, and register to vote.
- Tweet or post quotes, articles or topical issues about the First Amendment and freedom of speech.