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the first amendment to the constitution of the united states of america

20 August 2010

In case you missed it, idiotic radio talk show host “Dr.” Laura Schlessinger stirred up controversy for being a racist piece of shit.  The details of the incident are here.  What actually happened to start all this is bad enough: white lady tries to be the Objective Arbiter of racial insensitivity, complains that white people can’t say nigger, and casually dismisses real problems from a person of color who has decided to kill her brain cells by listening to that awful show.  What I wanted to talk about was “Dr.” Laura’s response to all this, which shows a misunderstanding of the US Constitution that is common to most conservatives who come under fire for saying stupid shit.

This is her response to being called out:

KING: So, what are you here to tell us tonight?

SCHLESSINGER: Well, I’m here to say that my contract is up for my radio show at the end of the year and I have made the decision not to do radio anymore. The reason is: I want to regain my First Amendment rights. I want to be able to say what’s on my mind, and in my heart, what I think is helpful and useful without somebody getting angry, some special interest group deciding this is a time to silence a voice of dissent, and attack affiliates and attack sponsors.

See that?  She’s doing it for the sponsors. For freedom.  Jesus.  Also, black people are apparently a “special interest group.”

What irks me, aside from the racism and petulant whining, is the blatant misunderstanding (I hope, I give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s not a willful misuse) of what the First Amendment is and means.  Schlessinger is saying that people calling her out for her racism is an infringement of her first amendment right to freedom of speech.  Well, to point out what’s wrong with that statement, let’s go back down memory lane, since most people probably need a refresher.

Transcript of the Bill of Rights:

Amendment I

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.

Let’s say that important part together:  Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.  That’s what the first amendment does.  It doesn’t give you the freedom of speech.  You have the freedom of speech by virtue of existing.  It’s one of those “inalienable rights” that Jefferson had in mind when he wrote the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

That’s the point of having a government in the first place- to secure the people’s inalienable rights- according to Jefferson.  The government doesn’t give you that right (though there are rights the government does grant, those laid out in the amendments are usually considered natural or inalienable.  For more on this, read every political philosopher from the last 400 years, particularly Locke).  If you have a system of government where you only have the freedom of speech because the government allows it, you might as well not have that right at all.  In addition, the Constitution doesn’t give you the right, because it’s just a piece of paper, and these rights and freedoms are inherent in every living person.  More importantly, the first amendment, as we saw, doesn’t even address the people, it addresses Congress.  That’s what the first amendment is- not a granting of rights to the people, but a restriction on the rights of Congress, which is exactly the way it should be.

So you see, a person cannot, by definition, infringe upon your first amendment rights, because a person is not Congress.   The amendment prevents Congress from restricting your freedom of speech.  What the first amendment doesn’t prevent is people being called out for saying something asinine.  If you say something racist and idiotic, and people take you to task for that, it’s not an abridgment of your freedom of speech.  You are free to say whatever you want to say, but we’re also free to call you a dumb honkey.

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