The First Amendment on the Fourth of July

Readers of this page on Tuesday probably noticed two letters expressing vastly different views on Jim Spehar’s recent columns about a meeting last month involving the Western Slope Conservative Alliance and a number of county sheriffs from this region.

Whatever one thinks of the opinions held by the letter writers, we know their right to express their opinions is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. So is The Daily Sentinel’s right to publish those letters, or not publish letters if we choose to reject them.

Spehar’s right to offer his views on a public meeting, whether he personally attended it or not, is also protected by the First Amendment. In fact, the conservative meeting itself was protected by the First Amendment’s clause preserving the “right of the people to peacably assemble.”

We thank God for these rights as we celebrate our nation’s birthday this Fourth of July.

Consider the state of free speech in other parts of the world. Here are some examples taken from recent news accounts:

✔ In Venezuela this week, prosecutors arrested a leading physician, claiming she divulged political or military secrets, even though they gave no details. Dr. Ana Maria Abreu’s real crime appears to be that she is a sister-in-law of a prominent critic of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez.

✔ In Burma, Ko Aye Aun was finally released from prison this week, 14 years after he was arrested for distributing leaflets critical of the government.

✔ In Syria, new horrors surfaced when Human Rights Watch revealed the existence of 27 torture centers where prisoners are brutalized by government thugs trying to gain information about opposition to dictator Bashar al-Assad.

✔ In Mexico, where presidential elections were just held, the danger to free speech is not from the government so much as drug cartels. Journalists who report critically about the drug gangs are especially at risk. The New York Times reported 45 Mexican journalists have disappeared or been killed since 2006.

Free-speech rights in the United States are sound by comparison. That’s not to say our rights have never been jeopardized. They have. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, through the Jim Crow laws of the South, to various laws aimed a curtailing union activity or campaign speech, we have occasionally attempted to curb the First Amendment rights of certain groups or individuals whose speech may offend some of us.

We have also continued to seek to define the legal limits of free speech. Just last month, the Supreme Court said the First Amendment protects a person who lies about his military record, limits the government’s ability to control nudity and obscenity on broadcast television and prohibits states from setting heavy new restrictions on campaign contributions.

Still, our First Amendment rights are generally healthy throughout the country and here in the Grand Valley. Public debate is robust and government interference is minimal.

And that is worth celebrating this Independence Day.


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