At first glance, the news that the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia has opened a gallery dedicated to the five freedoms of the First Amendment might strike producers and consumers of headline news as about as momentous as a national pie eating contest.
But take a look at Asha Prihar’s colorful blog at billypenn.com showcasing this exhibit’s depth, both historical and philosophical, and ask yourself if this exhibit isn’t well-timed and sorely needed. The gallery includes a 1789 letter from George Washington at the Constitutional Convention explaining to Quakers how the First Amendment, then awaiting ratification, would protect religious liberty. It tells the story of Elijah Lovejoy, an abolitionist who refused to quit publishing anti-slavery editorials in the face of angry mobs – and paid for his stubborn dedication to an ideal with his life. It tells the story of how the First Amendment advanced civil rights and how it relies on the good judgment of the people to tolerate vile speech upheld in the Supreme Court decision, Snyder v. Phelps (2011).
As one digitally strolls through this gallery, it becomes clear that the need of 21st century America for such an exhibit is cavernous. Case in point, an eminent law professor of our acquaintance, who teaches at a highly ranked law school, told us that when he recently began to teach the rudiments of the First Amendment, students balked. One asserted that a prominent politician with a national profile said things that were “evil” and that he therefore should be silenced.
The professor asked obvious questions:
Who decides what is “evil”?
Would you put an American – in this case, a major political figure elected by a majority of voters in his home state – in prison for saying something you regard as evil?
If we outlaw speech we don’t like, does it go away – or are we investing it with the glamor of the forbidden?
And what will you do when someone defines your speech as “evil” and comes after you?
These are the basic questions that were once presented in high school civics classes, not heard for the first time in a law school. In the face of these questions, this one law school student persisted –“but we just can’t let this guy go around saying things that are evil.” None of the professor’s questions penetrated. There is a level of senselessness in higher education, in public schools and in government – coming from both the right as well as the left – regarding the principles of free speech that approaches the satirical levels of Mike Judge’s 2006 masterpiece, Idiocracy.
So yes, the opening of a First Amendment Center at the National Constitution Center is something to be celebrated. So are the daily activities of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, which promotes the First Amendment through ad campaigns, a YouTube channel, and instructional materials for classrooms across the nation.
We cannot explain and celebrate the First Amendment often enough – the contentious, cantankerous, sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful exercise of free speech that makes us Americans.