The first amendment to the U.S. constitution is just a few short lines, but it speaks volumes. 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.
This past weekend, more than a hundred people in Floyd, Virginia came out to celebrate those words and explore their meaning. Robbie Harris prepared this report.
In a cathedral-like post and beam auditorium at the Floyd Eco Center, they sang songs, read poems and essays theyd written for the occasion and shared their thoughts about that powerful sentence. The celebration was the brainchild of Alan Graf, a civil rights attorney, activist and lover of blue grass music whod hoped to retire in Floyd and learn to play the banjo.
But in the past few months, he says, hes seen his beloved first amendment coming under attack, and he felt he had to say something. I think our best defense against any grabbing of power is our ability to speak and thats why I wanted to put together this celebration to remind people to use it
Graf explains, he devoted his life to being a watchdog for civil rights because of his own familys story. His grandparents were killed in the Holocaust in Germany during World War II.
So its in my family to fight against totalitarian regimes – and I see the writing on the wall. And so Ive been defending the constitution for 25 years – I feel religious about the Bill of Rights, first, second, third, fourth – well, every amendment, but particularly the first amendment. I see it as the peoples last stand against a totalitarian regime.”
Thats in part because it limits the power of government as Floyd County Commonwealth Attorney Eric Branscom points out.
It was in 1791 that the first amendment, along with the rest of the Bill of Rights, became part of the Constitution. Its important to note that the first amendment and the freedoms therein are not positive rights, theyre negative rights, which means they exist as limitations on the government rather than rights granted by the government.”
And that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, making the Bill of Rights something the legal system has grappled with ever since. And so have the poets, the philosophers and musicians among us.
Heres Kim ODonnel reading a poem she wrote for the first amendment celebration:
There is no such thing as free speech. Soldiers stand and fall, arrive home in a box beneath a flag. We have been given nothing that we did not pay for.
A rich man grabs a woman against her will and she eats her rage and every word she wants to say until she is emaciated from her hunger for truth.
She speaks out and he arrives in our capital, takes an oath beneath our flag.
There is no such thing as free speech. We have been given nothing that we did not pay for.
And just because freedom of expression is protected, that doesnt mean you have to agree with or accept whatever is expressed. Over the years, the legal community has come up with this balancing act; the remedy to any speech you dont like or dont agree with is more speech.
Original Music by Michael Kovick, Silence is Complicity.
I know that things aint just what they ought to be. You and I could turn it around. When we stand up for what we believe in, first amendment rights are found and if you dont like it and you dont stand up how is anybody gonna know where you stand? I want to know. Silence is complicity.