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The founding fathers added the Bill of Rights to the U. S.
Constitution to protect the individual against the state. Each one of
the authors had witnessed individual liberties trampled under the boots
of King George’s troops. Yet, today, many among us, including the media,
forget that the First Amendment is an individual right, not just a right
of the news media.
So it was with rare delight that I read an article that discussed the
true meaning of the First Amendment in the Los Angeles Times. Benjamin
Zycher, a California economist, on July 2, 1999, wrote a brilliant op-ed
illuminating the First Amendment connection between the proposed flag
burning amendment and so-called “hate crimes” legislation. He eloquently
summarized the problem faced by those that trample on the First
Amendment when he stated that “the criminalization of a particular way
of thinking — however contemptuous — is a step toward
Hanna Rosin in Tuesday’s Washington Post
doesn’t mention the First Amendment, yet that column illustrates the
manner in which the First Amendment protects our political process.
After all, our founding fathers were painfully aware that politics
is the exercise of First Amendment rights.
Hanna’s article covers the commotion over Hadassah, the Zionist
women’s organization, bestowing their highest honor on Hillary Rodham
Clinton. When the leadership of Hadassah announced the award one month
ago, some of its members were strongly opposed. These members decided to
publicly protest and they took to the streets of New York. Twenty
members of Hadassah exercised their First Amendment right to demonstrate
against their leadership by cutting up a large Hadassah membership card,
while pronouncing Hillary “an enemy of Israel.” They protested to remind
the public and the Hadassah membership of the first lady’s public
support of a separate state for Palestinians several years ago.
Another Hadassah member, according to the Post, “Elaine Mintz, a
Baltimore philanthropist and active member of the organization since the
1960s, deleted a six-figure donation to the group from her will, saying
the choice of Clinton ‘desecrates the ideals’ of the award.” Ms. Mintz
certainly exercised her First Amendment right by slamming shut her
Causes and politics can not be effective without people opening not
only their hearts but their checkbooks. In covering the resignation of
Bush’s Maine Finance chairman, Ted Dyke, Rosin illustrates how
politically unpopular thoughts and deeds can stymie the exercise of a
citizen’s First Amendment rights. Ted Dyke, resigned, not because of
what he said, but because of what he does for a living. He is the CEO of
Bushmaster Firearms Co., which manufacturers semi-automatic rifles.
Bushmaster’s current models are all legal rifles under federal and Maine
law, since the designs were modified to conform to the manufacturing
requirements of the 1994 Clinton Crime Bill.
After being interviewed by members of the press, Mr. Dyke decided to
resign from the Bush campaign in order not be “any baggage” to the
presidential candidate. In resigning Dyke said, “I heard something
yesterday about a concern that he had a gun manufacturer as a finance
chair. If that disenfranchises me as a citizen to participate in the
process, that’s what it is.” Dyke’s
resignation may make political
sense, but it confirms once again the power of political correctness
abroad in the land, and it reveals the fragility of our entire Bill of
In today’s America being a voice of dissent is still very difficult.
No matter what the dissent involves, the overwhelming force of society
compels conventionality. Nat Hentoff, a strong First Amendment advocate
for everyone regardless of political beliefs, has written a new book,
“Living The Bill of Rights.” His objective is to tell stories about how
our liberties were won and the people who keep them alive.
Hentoff is a great storyteller and the personalities he writes about
come alive in the book. The practical application of the First Amendment
to ordinary citizens, rather than the media, is well told in Hentoff’s
chapter about Anthony Griffin, to whom the book is dedicated. Anthony
Griffin is a black lawyer from Texas who was fired as the Texas NAACP
General Counsel because he took up the cause of Klu Klux Klan in 1993
when the state of Texas demanded the Klan’s membership lists.
In addition the Texas NAACP, which had been the beneficiary of the
1958 Supreme Court decision, NAACP v. Alabama, in the 1970s when
Texas demanded their membership list, filed an amicus brief supporting
the state of Texas’ attempt at getting the Klan’s list. Griffin’s
response to the New York Times was, “The Klan says some vile and vicious
and nasty and ugly things. But the Klan has a right to say them. If you
ask whether they have a right to organize, to assemble, to free speech,
those people have such a right, and we just can’t get around that.
Because if you take away their rights, you take away my rights also.”
In America the women of Hadassah can give an award to whomever they
choose. But those Hadassah women who disagree can still exercise their
First Amendment right to publicly air their displeasure. Presidential
candidates and ordinary Americans can still exercise their First
Amendment freedom of speech by paying for commercials without government
interference. Although Ted Dyke resigned his chairmanship, I hope he
will find some other method of exercising his First Amendment right to
organize, assemble, and support the candidate of his choice.
After all, the First Amendment was never just for the media, it was
to protect every citizen’s right to dissent. Whether you abhor or
support flag burning or “hate speech,” the First Amendment is about each
one of us exercising our freedom of expression and supporting
that freedom of expression for those that disagree with us.