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Opinions & observations: A vital civics lesson from an old document

December 21, 2020 Associated Press

This month marks the 229th anniversary of ratification by the United States of the Bill of the Rights.

It’s appropriate to reflect on the bedrock role the Constitution and Bill of Rights play in our country’s continued strength and existence.

The Constitution and its amendments underlie all of our shared civil liberties and social freedoms. They are timeless and perpetually relevant. They reflect the foresight of our country’s framers who created a document that guides and shapes our lives in every recess of our collective social, political, cultural, and economic experience.

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It’s easy to be down on America at times, but the vast civil liberties imbued us through the Bill of Rights, are unknown to the majority of the world’s citizens. The list of have-nots is disproportionately longer than those blessed few of us living in relative peace and mostly  safe from governmental abuse and excess.

The tougher things seem, the more clear it is we have the Bill of Rights to thank for our nation of laws. It provides us unyielding, clear guidance through complicated contemporary debates – protests, voting rights, immigration, religious freedom, the role of the judiciary, states’ rights, gun control, flag burning, health care reform, etc.

It also gives our citizenry the ability to discuss these controversial topics, without fear of sanctioned reprisal. This freedom forms the core of our underlying unity as we are drawn together by the sentiment – “I may detest your message but I will defend to the death your right to speak it.”

The First Amendment is clear. “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.” Nowhere in the amendment are there qualifications to gain liberties such as race, gender, size of bank account, political persuasion, marital status. The First Amendment is a big tent, and if you call this country home, you are in it.

The First Amendment is also the most critically important toward guaranteeing a free and open society. Countless historical examples exist to substantiate the certainty – an informed and active citizenry is unparalleled as a protection against government abuse, excess, and tyranny.

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It’s the reason that dictatorial regimes depend on centrally controlled propaganda. Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Communist China are among more notorious historical examples. But pay attention to current events and there are plenty of modern-day dictators whose firm grasp on power depends on their strict control of information.

In those countries (places like Yemen, Syria, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Belarus, China) people are arrested, tortured, and even killed for expression. Independent journalists simply don’t exist, so state-directed propaganda is the only source of “news.” At all times citizens in these places are told how and what to think.

Americans are envied by the oppressed, worldwide, but too often take their precious liberties for granted.

According to the latest First Amendment Center Poll, when asked to name the five First Amendment Freedoms, 64-percent of Americans could name freedom of speech, 29-percent could name freedom of religion, 22-percent knew the freedom of the press, 12-percent could name right to assemble, and four-percent could name the right to petition. The right to bear arms – a Second Amendment guarantee – was cited as a First Amendment liberty by 16-percent of respondents.

Meanwhile, 29-percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment and a jarring 29-percent of respondents said the First Amendment went too far. That’s likely why our outgoing President felt so empowered to attack the media as “Enemies of the People,” a term coined to deadly effect by Stalin.

Knowledge of the other 25 Amendments declines predictably.

The Constitution and Bill of Rights were largely an experiment by like-minded individuals united to abrogate authoritarianism and aspiring toward self-government. We think far too many Americans are inexcusably ignorant of the history, relevance, and reach intrinsic in these extraordinary documents. Much of the world’s peace and prosperity is built on the system of laws for which the Constitution and Bill of Rights provide the foundation.

By its simplicity and anticipant wisdom, however, the Constitution has thus far proven impregnable to assault, ignorance, and apathy. As citizens who enjoy the protections borne from and guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, we owe it to ourselves and to the subjugated majority of people throughout history, to reflect on these extraordinary freedoms we enjoy.

— From The Caledonian (Vt.) Record via Associated Press


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