Sundin column: Are we losing our 1st Amendment freedoms?

Hal Sundin
As I See It

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads:

“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.

These freedoms are the foundation of our democracy, but they are threatened by the aggressive actions of groups and individuals who find them in the way of what they would like to impose on the rest of us. Their principal targets are freedom of religion and freedom of speech and the press.

Thomas Jefferson was the leading proponent of freedom of religion, having made it a part of the Constitution of Virginia which he created in 1786 — the first law of its kind in Christendom. He referred to it as a “wall of separation between church and state” in which he was joined by James Madison. As such it would ensure not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion, protecting citizens from zealots aiming to impose their religious beliefs on others.

Some actions of the SCOTUS in recent decades are chipping away at that separation. The most notable was the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. It is recited in this form in schools and at public events, disregarding the opinion of a large segment of the public. After supporting arguments of a number of challenges to the inclusion that it violated the “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment, SCOTUS has since ruled that it does not.

SCOTUS, whose previous Court decisions prohibited giving any public funds to religious institutions, ruled that public funds for resurfacing a church playground were acceptable because it was not a religious activity, and that denial would be discrimination purely because it was a church school instead of a public school. Recently, many states have adopted policies providing funding for religious school repairs, teachers salaries and even student tuition. These decisions overlook the fact that public funding frees up church funds which can then be used for religious purposes.

The Framers of the Constitution recognized how important a free Press was to the functioning of a democracy. It had been the essential means of communication that had bound the people of the 13 colonies together in their fight for independence from British rule. The Press is now in serious decline. Since 2000 more than half of the newspapers in the U.S. are gone, and those that remain are much thinner, largely due to digital competition, which is both cheaper and quicker and easier than reading.

But there are some drawbacks. Digital media is cheap to make but is not nearly as well researched as newspaper reporting, and it has left thousands of communities without a newspaper. It is true that newspapers may have a conservative or liberal bias, but their primary purpose is to dig beneath the surface to report the facts to the public, whereas digital media, and especially social media, often show little regard for the facts. Instead, they have a tendency to report “fake” news to cater to their recipients, who because its bias matches theirs, accept it as “fact.”

This is a serious threat to our democracy, which should be built on facts, not fallacies. It paves the way for demagogues to become dictators. History provides us with many examples of dictators who have taken over their countries — Franco in Spain, Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, Castro in Cuba, Erdogan in Turkey, Orban in Hungary and Duterte in the Philippines. Universally, they have risen to and retained power by taking over the newspapers. We must be vigilant to protect our democracy and not let this happen here.

Freedom of Speech is a precious right of democracy which we take for granted, but if it is abused it can be lost. It doesn’t give one the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded room. And in today’s incendiary political environment, it may be necessary to curtail calls for violence to achieve political objectives. Many European countries have enacted “hate-crime” laws outlawing speech advocating violence. We need to preserve our freedom of speech by encouraging civil discourse, especially concerning race, ethnicity and politics.

It is hard to believe, but true, that over a dozen states (including Colorado) have enacted “property-rights” laws prohibiting public protests against corporations, in direct violation of the last part of the First Amendment.

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