Thursday, September 15, 2005

The First Amendment

Since I am apparently the new freelance political columnist for a not-so-known newspaper, I guess I should take this time to start discussing the first amendment. I'll keep things simple today.

Amendment I
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.

The first little bit is almost a whole sentence. The rest is just different endings to it. Let's examine it:

Congress shall make no law

Ok, that seems pretty straight forward. The only part of the government that can make laws is not allowed to make laws... about what? Let's look at the first thing:

respecting an establishment of religion

OK, we know the religion line, but what does 'respecting' mean?

re·spect - 1.To feel or show deferential regard for; esteem. 2. To avoid violation of or interference with: respect the speed limit. 3. To relate or refer to; concern.

Feel? Regard? I don't think it's the first one. This is an important political and economic document. It wouldn't allow emotion in it. The second two definitions actually contradict each other, so let's look at the way it would look if defined by each definition. Under the first, congress must make no law avoiding interference with religion. Let's try that again:

Congress shall make no law that doesn't interfere with an establishment of religion.

Not only is this a double negative, but it would mean that every piece of legislation would have to intefere with religions. This is obviously not the intended meaning. It must be the last meaning. It would look like this

Congress shall make no law referring to an establishment of religion.

Short, simple sweet. Next:

prohibiting the free excercise thereof

Obviously this is a reference to the first. So this is further emphasizing the point.

Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free excercise of religion.

I don't think there's any confusion there, so lets go to the next one.

abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press

First we need to find out what abridging means.

a·bridge - to diminish or reduce in scope

Well that's interesting...

Congress shall make no law lessening the freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Fascinating. Speech and the press, according to this, must be 100% free and cannot be touched. What's next?

or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances

Hmm. That's a long one. Let's assume that it has no reference to the other phrases and try to read it:

Congress shall make no law or the right of people...

No, that doesn't work. It must use another portion of the sentence. According to English, you draw back to the most recent. That would be abridging. We've got that, but do we know what all of that phrase means? It all seems pretty clear, but what's a 'redress of grievances'?

re·dress - 1. To set right; remedy or rectify. 2. To make amends to. 3. To make amends for

griev·ance - 1. An actual or supposed circumstance regarded as just cause for complaint. 2. A complaint or protestation based on such a circumstance. 3. Indignation or resentment stemming from a feeling of having been wronged. 4. The act of inflicting hardship or harm. 5. The cause of hardship or harm.

According to the dictionary, the 4th and 5th definitions of grievance are obsolete. They are, however, the ones the Constitution was written with the understanding of. The first 3 definitions are all related to legislative definitions that have been doctored by the law. As is quite apparent if you tie the first definition of redress with the 3rd or 4th definition of grievance, this is the most clear way to define this sentence:

Congress shall make no law lessening the right of the people to peaceably assemble.

Congress shall make no law lessening the right of the people to petition the government to rectify any harm it caused.

That, in essence, is the First Amendment. It's much more complicated than it looks, huh? It's been a long day. I'll talk to you all tomorrow.


Painful as it may be to hear it, there's nothing special about the people of this country that sets them apart from the other people of the world. It is the Bill of Rights, and only the Bill of Rights, that keeps us from becoming the world's biggest banana republic. The moment we forget that, the American Dream is over. – Alexander Hope

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