Two hundred thirty years ago today, fifty six people from a loosely assembled conglomeration of states, without much in the way of weapons or money, took a stand against what was then the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. Signing their names to a Declaration of Independence held them, and their constituants, personally responsible for incurring the wrath of the military might of Great Britain.
Anyone can declare something, though. After doing so, they were prepared to fight for it, and fight they did; after over four thousand deaths and six thousand wounded, they declared victory, and set about drafting what is arguably the most powerful document of government that ever existed.
Attached to that document was a Bill of Rights: ten amendments which guaranteed, for all time, certain rights of the people to be treated fairly by their government, to be free from tyrrany, censorship, unjust legal processes, and other bits of oppression they had witnessed -- the things, in other words, that caused them to part ways with Britain in the first place.
The very first amendment happens to be my favorite, and so today, on the Fourth of July, it is time for a brief civics lesson with your host, kitten.
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.
Let's examine this, bit by bit.
Congress shall make no law...
"Congress" is understood to mean "the government in general"; any government, federal, state, or local. It shall make no law
respecting an establishment of religion
This is known as "the establishment clause". No law shall be made which is influenced by religion, sponsors any religion, provides financial support to any religion, or gets involved with religion in any way. Period.
It means that no, you cannot force public, tax-funded schools, by force of legislation, to teach your religious pet ideas, be it creationism, "intelligent design", or anything else. It means that people may not be forced to pray. It means that they may allow religious texts to influence legal decisions (no Ten Commandments, no Talmud, no Confucious, nothing).
nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof
The "free exercise clause" means that, while the government cannot sponsor your beliefs, it cannot prevent you from practicing whatever beliefs you hold. If you wish to pray in school, you are perfectly at liberty to do so. You may bring your Bible, your Koran, your Bhagavad-Gita, or your Satanic Bible, and do with it what you will, so long as you don't use the power of the state to force it on anyone else.
or abridging the freedom of speech
What could possibly be more clear? "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech."
You don't have to like the message of the speaker. You may hate it. You may use your own freedom of speech to denounce someone else's message, to argue with it. But you may not make laws that prevent someone from saying something -- no matter what that something is. (The only exceptions to this are things that are considered "obscene" -- basically something that depicts hardcore sex, which can be regulated but not banned outright, or things that constitute a "clear and present danger" to public safety, such as falsely yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.)
It also means that people are free to say whatever they want about the government, religion, politics, or anything else, and the government cannot stop them.
"Speech" is not -- I repeat, not -- limited to verbally saying things aloud. It extends to any form of expression: art, music, photography, symbolic actions, or any other means you can think of to convey a message.
This means, among other things, that if someone wishes to set the American flag on fire, they may do so. It may be disrespectful, it may be obnoxious, it may inspire feelings of anger in those who witness it.. and it may be those very things that the flag-burner wishes to express. The government may not censor such a message merely because the message is unpopular.
Parenthetically, my two dipshit Senators (Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson) fail to understand this. That's right, I called them both dipshits, as is my constitutional right. Check out this quote from Isakson:
Unlike some, I do not believe the flag is an inanimate object. I believe it is a living symbol for which our men and women in harm's way have fought for over two centuries.
Mister Senator, living symbol it may be, but burning it obviously constitutes a message. If it didn't, you wouldn't be addressing this. Therefore, the only reason you want to ban it is because you wish to censor the message, because you don't like it. You, sir, are a dipshit, and I plan to vote for anyone who runs against you in the next election. Senator Chambliss, the same goes for you, you ridiculous scumbag. I hope that, when you die, both of you spend eternity having the crap kicked out of you by James Madison, who might ask you which part of Congress shall make no law
failed to be understood by either of you.
Moving on. What "free speech" does not mean is that you have the right to be heard, or listened to, or cared about. You may say whatever you want, but you have no guarantee that anyone will care. They may, in fact, use their own freedom to inform you and everyone else that what you're saying is idiotic.
It also does not apply to private corporations, websites, or anything else other than government. If you post something on a website, write an article, say something stupid at work, and it is removed, or mocked, or gets you fired, "freedom of speech" isn't going to get you anywhere, unless you were criminally prosecuted for it.
...or of the press...
The press, or any form of media, may publish whatever information it wishes to publish, regardless of whether the government wants that news to get out, or finds it offensive. The government may not ban books, prevent a reporter from reporting facts, or stop me from calling my Senators dipshits.
...or the right of the people peaceably to assemble...
You may hold a peaceful, nonviolent gathering in any public place you so choose, to protest or say whatever you wish, and there is nothing the government may do about it. It may require you to relocate for public reasons (e.g., you cannot block a road or prevent someone from entering a building), but it cannot prevent you from gathering at all.
...and to petition the government for a redress of grievances
petition (v): to formally request something, usually submitted to an authority
redress (n): relief from distress; remedy; make amends for, or correct a wrongdoing
grievances (n): an allegation of wrongdoing; a formal statement of complaint, generally against an authority
While you have no guarantee of anyone doing anything about it, you have a right to call out the government on any issue you wish. To disagree, as loudly and using whatever words you choose, with any law or politician. To demand, if you so desire, that something be changed.
It does not make you less of a patriot to insist that George Bush is a moron (for example), despite what many right-wing commentators would have you believe.
You are under no obligation to support the president, support the troops, support Christianity, support anything you don't wish to support.
Those who understand and practice these rights, as laid out by the first amendment, are doing their duty as citizens of the United States. Those who meekly submit to authority, tow the party line, or declare others unpatriotic for not falling in lockstep with the status quo, are the ones who would make our Founding Fathers ashamed, for it is they who fought to ensure these rights to the people.
This Fourth, exercise your rights.
While you're at it, have a few beers and blow some shit up. It's the American way.