Friday, April 30, 2010

COLUMN: Who’s on First (Amendment)?

Last week, a new study revealed that only a quarter of Americans can name more than one of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: There’s more than one?

And the answer is, yes there are, but the study said that twice as many people could name members of TV’s Simpson family than could name two or more of those freedoms. Which, granted, isn’t an especially fair comparison, given that “The Simpsons” has been on for so long now that it’s impossible not to know them; it’s rumored that Woodrow Wilson ended his 1912 debate by telling Taft to eat his shorts.

But it wasn’t just the venerable Simpsons that people were more familiar with; the study also said that more people could name three “American Idol” judges than name three First Amendment rights. (Which is ironic, considering that Simon is actually exercising at least one of those rights every time he tells a contestant that if she’d sung like that 2,000 years ago, people would have stoned her to death.)

So I figure it falls to me to fill you in on some First Amendment freedoms you may be unfamiliar with. And, contrary to what one-fifth of the study’s participants thought, one of them isn’t the right to own a pet — although I can see where they’d think that, given Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for his pet sheltie, Beauregard.

1) Speech: This is the right that guarantees you can say whatever you want, wherever you want, safe in the knowledge that your government can’t throw you in prison for it. No, what they’ll probably get you on is tax evasion. (It’s worth noting, however, that despite this freedom you can still not yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. This was particularly important when the Bill of Rights was written, because theater tickets were much cheaper then.)

2) Religion: This is the right ensuring that if any public employee (teacher, librarian, DPW worker, etc.) even accidentally insinuates that there may be some kind of supreme being (for instance by screaming, “Oh my God, I’ve stabbed myself with my compass!”), it is legal for him or her to be immediately tackled by undercover Secret Service agents. It also keeps the government from telling you what religion to practice, even in the case of Tom Cruise.

3) Assembly: You remember when you were in school, and every so often they’d haul you all down to the gym for an assembly, and someone would talk to you about hygiene or the dangers of LSD? It’s sort of like that.

4) Press: Particularly important to the people in my profession, this is the right that declares we can print or broadcast whatever we want, as long as we don’t mind being firebombed. (It’s worth noting that the fledgling government almost immediately regretted this one when the Norwich Packet ran a story about “George and Martha’s Steamy Summer SEX ROMP.”)

5) Petition for the redress of grievances: According to historians, even the Founding Fathers didn’t really know what this one was about, but James Madison thought it sounded “wicked dramatic.” One thing we do know is that as originally written, the S’s looked like little F’s.

Speaking as someone who, in all seriousness, had a framed copy of the Bill of Rights on his wall until we took it down to paint recently and I accidentally stepped on it (which, believe me, made me feel really bad, like the ghost of John Hancock was going to visit me in the night and stick me with his quill), I found the study disturbing, to say the least. But on the plus side, I suppose it could jump-start some interest in the foundations of this great democracy, and finally get people to better appreciate our freedoms.

Although “The Simpsons” may need to go off the air first.

Peter Chianca is a managing editor for GateHouse Media New England. This "Best of Chianca" column is from 2006. Follow him on Twitter at

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