Those four words invoke a thousand images: rows of crosses on foreign shores, a kneeling Marine in dress blues handing a folded flag to a small boy, a uniformed man with no legs saluting as the flag goes by in a parade.
That’s where the mind goes, and with good reason. A lot of good men and women have fought and died to preserve our freedom, and we should honor that sacrifice. There are those who will scoff, saying things like “fighting for oil” and the “military-industrial complex” — but that’s not disagreeing; we need to make absolutely certain that, in the future, we never go to war for less than a righteous cause, or we dishonor the price that will be paid.
Worthy though that sentiment is, however, that’s not what I came here to say today.
It’s true that our freedoms were won on battlefields, from Bunker Hill and Cowpens to New Orleans, Gettysburg to Petersburg, and even on the beaches of Normandy. But they were also won in the halls of Congress, at the conventions in Philadelphia and post-war New York, in the newspapers with Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton, and in the great public debates between Lincoln and Douglas. Blood was shed to create the opportunity for statesmen to draft laws that preserve our freedoms — the right to say what we want when we want to, to assemble peaceably in protest, to petition the government for redress of grievances, to pursue happiness.
But there is a further cost to those freedoms, and it’s one we pay daily: The price of freedom is freedom.
The everyday price we pay to speak freely is that others too can speak freely. If we restrict someone else’s speech, as a matter of course we compel restrictions on our own. The same goes for all forms of expression: If we forbid someone trampling on the flag, we will sooner or later find ourselves prevented from trampling theirs. If we prevent the flying of flags we disapprove of, it’s only a matter of time before someone disapproves of our flag. This is because rights are either absolute or they’re not; we either have them or we don’t. If we suffer restrictions on them, they become privileges rather than rights — privilege, meaning “private law”. Someone else grants them to us, and what someone grants they can take away again at will.
Our rights only exist up to that point where they interfere with the rights of another. Right now, some people are upset that certain beloved Dr. Seuss books are no longer being printed, and look on that as a restriction to free expression — which it is, but not in the way they think. The right to express is fundamental, but so is the right to property. These books, or rather the intellectual content within them, is the property of someone else, and if they choose to conceal it or change it, that’s their right. The most we can do is disagree with them — and you’ll notice, nobody is preventing you from disagreeing. Some may make fun of you for it, but that’s their right too, because the price of us having the freedom of speech is others also having that right.
There is a long list of natural rights — or “God-given”, as some would insist, and who are we to gainsay them? — that are explicitly protected by our Constitution. There are also derived rights, those that are implied, and not a few that are expressly granted. One that’s receiving a great deal of attention and debate (as it usually does) is the right to keep and bear arms. This is all well and good; in point of fact, it’s because of the First Amendment that the Second can be discussed — and will be in Part 2. (We don’t talk about the Third Amendment all that often, but that’s only because nobody’s quartering troops on us. People misuse guns and speech all the time.)
There is one final point that needs to be made here, and few could do so better than James Madison:
“…all power is originally vested in, and consequently derived from, the people… Government is instituted and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety… [T]he people have an indubitable, unalienable, and indefeasible right to reform or change their Government, whenever it be found adverse or inadequate to the purposes of its institution.”
He originally proposed that this be incorporated in the Constitution’s preamble, but it was determined by the Senate to be self-evident, and thus unnecessary. Presently, while it may have little force in law as stated, it nevertheless remains as the philosophical foundation of our very form of government.
Thus, the very thing that causes our government to be at all valid is that the people will it to exist, and that we express that collective will during our regular elections. But therein lies another price: That we have the right to vote of necessity implicitly mandates that every citizen must have the same right. Some are crazy, others stupid, many misinformed, and not a few willfully ignorant — and yet, they all have the same share in selecting our representatives as even the best-informed critical thinker.
There is an unfortunate yet inevitable conclusion: Given enough time, the electorate will eventually approve of the restriction or elimination of their own rights. The only safeguards are the Constitution, the institutions created within it to resist such changes, and the will of the people to continually resist such infringements. We must be steadfast and vigilant, and we must continually and freely discuss every measure with respect to this.
The alternative is to watch the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.
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