“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free expression thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. ” These few words, made law in 1791, embody the principle doctrines of a free society, and have served as a model for other nations as well as a beacon for people who yearn for such rights. Everyone should know these words and understand just how important they are. Today most Americans take these freedoms for granted.
They would not do so if they had been so unfortunate to live any of their lives under a repressive government that denied or censored the press, prohibited religious ex-pression and considered it illegal for people to peacefully assemble. There are three specific rea-sons why First Amendment is important to me, and why it remains especially important to Amer-ica today. Like many people my religious faith is very important to me. The importance of my faith helps me understand how important different faiths are to other people.
I cannot think of what it would be like to be required to worship according to a “state religion” or be required to worship in a secret manner. The freedom to worship as one chooses, and to respect others as they do the same, without any governmental interference whatsoever is to me a basic civil liberty. The basic civil liberty of free speech is absent from many countries around the world, which makes me all the more aware that I can speak freely without fear. Some countries maintain a strict control on what their citizens say and how they say it, and monitor communication services and the Internet in the process.
Anyone caught speaking in a manner the government disapproves of will likely be silenced, or worse. In many so-called “free” countries the freedom of speech exists only as a slogan, and many people fear criticizing the ruling faction of govern-ment, knowing there could be reprisals. I have many friends from nations around the world, and many of them envy the freedom of speech I enjoy and others depend on. We depend on the free speech exhibited by the press, and although we may not agree with what is said, we must support by all means possible their right to free expression in the press.
There is so much potential for the flow of information today, particularly through the In-ternet, that it is sad and unbelievable many nations still insist on a “state press” and are quick to censor or silence any newspaper, radio station, or web site considered biased against the gov-ernment. Without the freedom of the press, we lose the ability to learn and grow. The importance of the First Amendment is ongoing, and perhaps more today than ever. There are a seemingly endless number of lawsuits before the federal courts asking for a determi-nation or clarification of “church and state” issues.
More importantly numerous ethnic groups have come to America to be free of religious persecutions in their homeland. And, critically, the War on Terror has placed our freedom of speech in the forefront as “domestic surveillance” has become a common part of our life. Throughout all of these situations it is important to remember that the First Amendment and the remainder of the Bill of Rights have survived for over two hundred years. We must do all within our power to guarantee their ongoing survival and im-portance to our way of life.