American Culture

American vs. unAmerican values, according to the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America

Values that run contrary to the Constitution of the United States of America are, by definition, unAmerican values. Let’s consider the rights defined by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment (image credit: Odyssey Online)

For a discussion of unAmerican values pertaining to the Declaration of Independence, click here.

Without the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States of America, the United States would not exist. As such, the values laid out in these two documents are, by definition, American values. And any values held in opposition to the values in these documents are, again by definition, unAmerican.

The First Amendment

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.

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. It is not now and has never been a Christian nation. Anyone who wants the United States to be run in strict adherence to Christian morality – or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Wiccan morality – is advocating for an unAmerican position. Similarly, requiring prayer in a public school is also unAmerican.

America also doesn’t prohibit people from freely exercising their beliefs, except in extreme circumstances (human sacrifices are prohibited, for example). So while requiring prayer in a public school is unAmerican, so is prohibiting prayer. Blocking the construction of a mosque simply because it’s a mosque rather than a church is unAmerican. In the event that voucher programs are instituted nationwide, saying that the funds can only go to Christian private schools but not to Jewish or Muslim schools would also be unAmerican.

In cases where the right of one person to say whatever they want interferes with the rights of another person, such as in the cases of libel or safety, the Supreme Court has ruled that some abridgment of free speech is acceptable. But these abridgments are very limited, and the more of a public figure someone is, the fewer protections one tends to have. Hate speech that is incitement to violence is against the law, but imposing government limits on people saying hateful things about another person or group of people is unAmerican. Public institutions enforcing “safe spaces” where opposing views are unwelcome and/or punished somehow is also unAmerican. “Free speech zones” (those areas created by governments to isolate protesters from those being protested against) are not so easily categorized, as the rights of protesters to peaceably assemble and speak must be balanced with the rights of the people being protested to do the same.

Note, however, that the First Amendment guarantees that the government won’t limit your speech. It offers no protections against an employer firing you for spewing hate. It also doesn’t protect you from being thrown out of a private function that was organized as a “safe space” if you voice unwelcome opinions.

NYTimes cover from August 9, 1974 (image credit: NYTimes)

The free press is the Fourth Estate – the manner by which We The People are made aware of what the government is doing, supposedly in our name. This is why most limits on the free press are just as unAmerican as limits on free speech. Supporting reporters who refuse to reveal their sources is an American value. Jailing a reporter for contempt of court in order to compel the reporter to reveal their sources is a gray area. We are, after all, a nation of laws, and even the freedom of the press is subject to certain limitations. That said, opening up the press to greater legal liability for libel lawsuits when the press accurately reports facts (which is essentially what Donald would like to do to the press) is unAmerican. Identifying the press as “enemies of the people” is also unAmerican.

The right to assemble peacefully is subject to safety-based limitations. It’s against the law, for example, to pack 1000 people into an area that can only hold 100 safely. Laws that require permits to assemble on public streets are therefore legal and in line with American values. Laws that ban assembly on public streets entirely, however, are unAmerican. Laws that limit motorists’ legal liability for injuring protesters who are engaged in civil disobedience on a public street lean toward being unAmerican. And the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which made illegal a number of acts of assembly including blocking access to medical providers (and houses of worship), is in line with American values because the actions made illegal (threats of violence as well as actual assault) have all been found to be speech and assembly that is not protected by the First Amendment.

The right to petition the government for redress of grievances includes not only the right to ask your elected representatives to address your particular concern, but also the right to sue the government in the courts. Just because citizens have the right of petition, there is nothing that requires the government to redress any grievances. Which is where the right to sue the government comes in. As such, laws that would limit the right of citizens to sue the government are unAmerican. The larger issue with respect to the right of petition is that not all citizens have equal access to the government to petition. Corporations, who have the ability to pay for lobbyists whose only job is to petition the government, have far greater access to the government than actual flesh-and-blood Americans do. Similarly, wealthy Americans have greater access than do poor Americans, even though there are far more poor Americans than there are wealthy ones. This turns the right of petition into an example of “separate, but equal,” which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and is thus unAmerican.

The rights listed in the First Amendment may be legally constrained in cases where the rights of one person come into conflict with the rights of another. As such, there are some gray areas where it’s not easy to tell of a value based on the First Amendment is American or unAmerican. But generally speaking, values that are contrary to those described in the First Amendment are unAmerican value, while values that are in line with the Declaration of Independence are American values. This is true regardless of the political persuasion of those who hold the views.

I’ll address the Second Amendment next.

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