Throughout our history, United States citizens have debated 45 words that have become the bedrock on which our culture stands: “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.”
Since the death of George Floyd, I have spent an enormous amount of time reflecting on what has occurred — and continues to occur — in our country. What originated in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has brought forth a level of dialogue around not only racism, but also our First Amendment right to free speech and peaceful assembly.
I did what any lifelong learner would do — I researched it and refreshed my knowledge on those 45 words that are imprinted on Americans. Did you know that the First Amendment was actually supposed to be the Third Amendment? The original first and second amendment were defeated at the time. The original First Amendment dealt with how members of the House of Representatives would be assigned to the states — a measure that would have resulted in more than 6,000 members of the House of Representatives! The original Second Amendment? It addressed congressional pay (it was later approved as the 27th Amendment 203 years later).
And then the third became the first. How fortuitous it was to have the first two amendments fail so that the third would become the first! The amendment for which the United States is known around the world — and arguably has influenced other nations — became first through fate.
While our courts have decided that some speech is protected and some not (fighting words, child pornography, true threats, etc.), it is important to remember that we should not necessarily differentiate who is entitled to free speech and assembly and who is not. Remember the document celebrated during our recent holiday: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Those 45 words of the First Amendment encapsulate the liberty we cherish. You cannot be supporters of freedom of speech and assembly of only ideas with which you agree and only people with whom you agree.
The bottom line is this: Our First Amendment rights are fundamental to the fabric of our nation. Whether or not we agree with the speech or demonstration, we have been afforded this right by our founding fathers. Our ability to contribute to the marketplace of ideas — whether or not we like or agree with those ideas and those who share them — is what makes our country an incomparable place to live, work and play.
President, The University of Tennessee System
Tags: current events, free speech, racism