The first amendment and its original intent

A guest article from Reina Tanizaki, a Seabury Hall senior who is a student in Mrs. McLeod’s “Introduction to Law” class.

Our forefathers created the Constitution, which preserves our freedom of speech. But how is that relevant in our contemporary world of Facebook and internet news? The United States Supreme Court takes its reasoning back to “original intent.”

Before the United States became independent, it was a colony of Great Britain and the American colonists had very limited rights. On July 4th of 1776, the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Founding Fathers and the United States of America was born.  James Madison, a congressman from Virginia, found the original Constitution potentially too restrictive. He felt as though the Constitution was more about the government than the people.  When the First Congress met in 1789, he drafted a proposal of the Bill of Rights to fill in the holes of the original Constitution to protect individual freedoms.  Two years later, on December 15th of 1791, the Bill of Rights (our first ten amendments) finally passed.

Ever since, there have been struggles within the government dealing with the rights of individuals. What are rights? Black’s Law Dictionary defines rights as “powers of free action.”

The first amendment states that “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.”

Yes, this amendment is the reason why Americans proudly go around saying “This is America. I can say whatever I want.” The First Amendment includes the freedom of speech, which means the government cannot control what its citizens can and cannot say. The question is, is there a limit to this, so-called freedom?  The answer is yes. A well-known example of a limit is that someone choosing to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, when there is no fire, could cause mass confusion and possibly injuries or death.  Technically, the person who yelled “Fire!” has the right to say so. But this is where the original intent comes in to clarify our rights.

The term original intent refers to what the Founding Fathers were thinking when they wrote the Constitution of the United States of America. When James Madison wrote, in the Bill of Rights, that people have the freedom of speech, he meant that people could be able to criticize the American government without the fear of being imprisoned. It was never his intention to protect one person’s right to cause harm arbitrarily by yelling “Fire!” where there is none. It is now the Supreme Court’s job to interpret the constitution with the Founding Fathers’ original intent in mind, in a modern fashion.