In this era of misinformation and threats to free expression the ability to speak openly and truthfully is more essential than ever. Concerned for what we view as a recent erosion of respect for First Amendment rights, we’ve commissioned a new series of short essays that will serve as a platform for authors to share their own stories. The following piece is a part of that series. We asked authors to respond to the prompt, “What does the First Amendment mean to you?” and, in the spirit of the First Amendment, we’ve encouraged the authors of these essays to give imaginative voice to what they believe these freedoms mean today. (The views expressed are of course solely those of the author and are not intended to reflect the Guild’s position on any issue.)
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.
Governed by Ghosts
by Catherine Lacey
The question, “What does the First Amendment mean to you?” presumes that an individual can create their own definition for a piece of legislation once meant to protect us from the values of others. And yet in 2015 we saw the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) emerge, a bill that violates the First Amendment by both respecting specific establishments of religion and disempowering those who wish to live peacefully, ungoverned by the religious views of others.
FADA asserts that the federal government should take no action against a citizen who, on the basis of their “religious beliefs” or the even murkier “moral conviction,” denies services, housing, employment, or common decency to a non-heterosexual person. Thus, the bill gives special privileges and protection to those who wish to generalize their beliefs over the private lives of strangers and denies protection to those who are disempowered by those moral generalizations.
From a grammatical perspective, the First Amendment is quite clear, but if recent political discourse in America can tell us anything, facts and clarity of expression are not currently in fashion. It is from this disregard for facts that a bill like FADA can arise, a bill that violates the First Amendment while insisting that it defends it. In a way, FADA is also an answer to the question, “What does the first amendment mean to you?”
So let’s put “meanings” and “moral convictions” aside for a moment and ask ourselves not what the First Amendment means, but simply what is the First Amendment?
The First Amendment is a sentence, forty-five words in length, written by James Madison, edited by Congress, passed by the House and Senate, and adopted in 1791. The men who passed this bill were only that—only men—fallible and extraordinarily privileged, making a new country on stolen land, building that country with the enslaved labor of a stolen people. Blood was positively everywhere. These men wore white stockings and fancy little wigs and flashy buckles on their shoes—garb so flamboyant that a male politician in today’s equivalent would likely be ridiculed.
Now the words of these men are considered immutable, unquestionable—yet the definition of almost every noun in the First Amendment has changed. What is the press and does it include every social media outlet and fake news source? What is speech and does it include what may be recorded without your awareness? What is a religion and should hate groups continue to enjoy the same protections that churches do? What are people and are corporations considered people? What does it mean to peacefully assemble when a protest is surrounded by weapons of war that would have been unimaginable in 1791?
One gets the sense we may be governed by ghosts, or worse, that we are governed by human beings who believe they alone know what the ghosts really meant 225 years ago.
Catherine Lacey is an author and discontent. She wrote Nobody Is Ever Missing, a winner of a 2016 Whiting Award, The Art of the Affair, an illustrated history of love and influence throughout the 20th century, and the forthcoming novel, The Answers. She was born in Mississippi and is based in Chicago.
Photo credit: Willy Somma