Americans should remember First Amendment rights apply to all

Lindsay Buchanan, Senior Writer

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution grants five basic rights to citizens of this country that are freely enjoyed by each of us on a regular basis without conscious thought, and envied by people in other countries the world over.

The First Amendment reads as follows:

“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.”

At face value, these rights are simple. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, freedom to petition. And yet these rights, that many of us take for granted and many of us fight to protect, are frequently interpreted and reinterpreted by courts of law around the country due to differing opinions on how far they should reach. Each new case involving a First Amendment right or violation draws the attention and focus of not only the people involved, but increasingly the public and media as well.

Take for instance two recent events in our nation that are ongoing; the building of an Islamic community center a few blocks from Ground Zero in New York City and a threat made by the pastor of a small Florida church to burn copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of 9/11.

Both situations have stirred emotions on opposite ends of the spectrum: outrage over what some believe is insensitivity regarding a horrific event in our nation’s history and support from people who believe those involved are within their rights covered by the First Amendment. Granted both of these examples carry the additional burden of the gut-wrenching memories etched in every American’s mind of the tragedy of 9/11 and the seemingly unending war that continues to cause the loss of American soldiers that has followed that event.

But, there is no denying that our Constitution does in fact cover both freedom of religion (and the right to practice it uninhibited) and freedom of speech (which, according to precedents set forth by past cases, includes symbolic speech such as the burning of flags).

It is easy to see on the one hand how many people who regularly take their First Amendment rights for granted could become inflamed when they suddenly realize that those same rights protect something they find offensive. For some it incites protest and angry rants. These are the people who seem to be increasingly gaining the most media attention. For many, this realization gives them the sudden urge to stick their head in the ground like an ostrich hiding from something he does not want to face, and who only wants to relate to his own point of view.

However, on the other hand it is obvious to many that if Americans hope to continue to enjoy the freedoms granted under this amendment then as a nation we must protect the right of every citizen to do so, not just those we agree with. Even with the memory of 9/11 fresh in people’s minds, those who hope to uphold the First Amendment for every citizen realize they cannot allow that horrible act to color the fact that the acts of extremists do not predict the actions of others of the same religion.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that so often in today’s world of constant news overload and competition between media outlets to stir up the interest of viewers, events that in the past might not have received much coverage are now constantly repeated and sensationalized to the point where we begin to think they are more important than they really are. The outbursts of an angry few become the accepted truth by thousands.

For instance, very few media outlets have bothered to identify the fact that there is already a Muslim mosque close to Ground Zero that has never raised concern or that the building now being contemplated is actually a Muslim community center, not a mosque. Nor did many news outlets report the fact that leaders from both liberal and conservative parties begged the media to stop giving unlimited coverage to the Florida pastor who was so obviously seeking attention (and who called off his stunt only after receiving a phone call from Defense Secretary Robert Gates, therefore getting that attention).

In fact, the actions and words of this pastor gave concern to leaders over the safety of our soldiers by enraging those who consider the Koran a holy item. But the fact that anyone even knew about the event was due to the constant international news coverage the man received. So yes, the First Amendment gives freedom to the press as well as the pastor. Although both were within their rights, the problem comes when people begin to practice those rights without any consideration or concern for what effect they may have on others.

When many Americans learned that the actions of this pastor were causing anger and fear among Muslims all over the world and could potentially endanger our troops, they were confused. It seemed obvious to most Americans that this was the action of only one pastor and his congregation and therefore had nothing to do with the beliefs of the majority of our nation’s citizens, so why would it bother Muslims?

However, aren’t many of those same Americans guilty of painting with the same wide brush when they assume all Muslims are capable of terrorist acts based on the actions of a few?

Just to clear things up – not all Muslims are terrorists. In fact, a very small percentage of people who follow the Muslim faith have extremist viewpoints, and typically they are condemned by the majority of Muslims. Just like not all Christians would agree to or ever be involved in the burning of the Koran, and the majority of Christians would (and did) condemn even the possibility of that act, regardless of the man’s First Amendment right to do so.

As far as I know, none of us wants to be typecast into any individual’s stereotyped version of a religion. Instead, most of us hold our religious beliefs, or lack thereof in some cases, to be something that is personal to us individually and not open to interpretation from outsiders. We hold tightly to our freedom to practice when and where we choose under the First Amendment, and would be outraged if this freedom was ever called into question because someone we are not affiliated with chose to do something outrageous and claimed a connection to our own religion.

The truth is, if non-Muslim Americans feel they have the right to stereotype people of the Muslim religion simply because of the acts of a radical few, then Muslims have the right to stereotype all Christians based on the threatened acts of a small-town preacher in Florida.

As far as I know, no one in America wants that to become a reality, which is exactly why our founders attached the First Amendment to our Constitution. So that in America, one would never have to worry about being judged or restricted in their freedoms.

Is it just that the media and a few individuals have stirred up fears that may not otherwise have been there? Have we forgotten as a nation that one of the main reasons many of our ancestors began to settle in this country was to escape the exact type of religious intolerance that many Americans are now subjecting Muslims (hundreds of thousands of whom are American citizens) to everyday?

If religious intolerance is all we exhibit, and all the media portrays to the world, then we are not only failing to uphold the First Amendment, but also showing the world the exact type of behavior that was responsible for the attacks on 9/11 in the first place – intolerance for those who believe differently from us.