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.
The Cornerstone of Democracy
by Ellen Hopkins
These are strange days, indeed. Every morning we hurry to our information sources, anxious to discover what small or large piece of our presumed indestructible republic has been chiseled away while we slept. At stake is its very blueprint, the Constitution, which is an agreement of the federal government to protect the freedoms promised by the Bill of Rights. Yet it seems our representatives, including those with offices in the White House, are determined to erode those rights. Beginning to crumble already is the cornerstone of our democracy, the First Amendment.
Every element is endangered, each as important as the rest. And what has become more and more clear is that, without the check of the judicial system, the executive and legislative branches, working in tandem, might very well be willing to allow its dissolution. We the People must dismiss partisanship and use the power of our collective will to safeguard the liberties we’ve too long taken for granted.
Sparked by campaign rhetoric in the days preceding the 2016 election, the otherwise inexplicable spike in hate crimes before and since encompasses not only racism and xenophobia, but also religion. Mosques and synagogues are specifically targeted, as are men, women, and children exercising their constitutionally assured right to worship as they choose. This concerns me, not only as a US citizen, but also as a lifelong Lutheran who believes that we cannot allow a religious litmus test as proof of patriotism.
Even more alarming is the assault against free speech and the press. Without the ability to speak our minds sans threat of intimidation, we are truly marching in lockstep toward tyranny. No one person or group should have the ability to silence another, regardless of the message. As abhorrent as some are, to disallow their right to disseminate opinions contrary to our own would be to serve as censors. We can attempt to speak louder, or we can refuse to listen. But to shutter them completely invites the risk of being shuttered. There the question arises: who gets to decide which voices are worthy of being heard?
As an author of young adult fiction, I have personally experienced censorship. Not only of my work (which regularly appears on banned books lists), but also of my literal voice through public speaking disinvitations because of my outspoken support of the LGBTQ community. Yes, my novels explore uncomfortable subject matter and, yes, I address it unflinchingly. I’ve made a pact with my readers and myself to write the truths of the human condition—frailty, strength, passion, predation, courage, despair—as honestly as possible because I believe the best way to defeat personal demons is by shining a spotlight on them.
You may choose not to pick up my books. And you’re welcome to state your opinion that they’re inappropriate for a YA audience, or give them single-star reviews, but you must not be allowed to pull them from bookshelves or take them out of the hands of people hungry to see themselves represented on the page. I would request you read them in their entirety for context and to recognize the love and redemption written there, too, bonfires fighting the darkness. Because that is how valid views are formed—through solid research.
My gravest concern for the First Amendment is the current war on the press. Having grown up with anchors like Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, trusting the veracity of their evening newscasts (even understanding they didn’t always get it exactly right), the move toward “news as entertainment” is disheartening. My journey to fiction began with journalism, and my husband worked in radio and television newsrooms for three decades, so I have the utmost respect for hardworking journalists who dig for facts, as well as their dedicated reporting. To have it dismissed as “fake news” via Twitter by the President of the United States because he doesn’t like what they have to say (or is afraid of it) is unnerving. And to urge his loyalists to only listen to the news sources he sanctions is utterly reprehensible. This is the fast track to totalitarianism.
It can be argued, and rightly, that every person should act responsibly and seek the truth. But here we return to human nature. Often that means following the path of least resistance, of hearing rather than listening. Of sound bites and headlines and tweets. And when the holder of the highest office in the land insists he is the only truth teller, far too many are willing to accept his word without further contemplation.
So now journalists are shouted down, pushed around, even beaten, for no other reason than doing their jobs. Highly respected news outlets are accused of falsehoods, while those infamous for disseminating disproven conspiracy theories are quoted as reliable sources. The dialogue has been warped by (and I don’t use this word lightly) propaganda. I submit it is our duty as citizens of the republic and members of a free society to gather our voices and stand fast in favor of verity. And we must hold our representatives accountable to the dictate of the American populace.
Our founding fathers understood that government is susceptible to corruption, and so they labored to establish a document that would limit the power of those sworn to work for the welfare of the citizenry. The Constitution is a covenant between We the People and our elected representatives. Both parties bear accountability and neither can be permitted to default or the America we celebrate will not survive. And if our democracy falls into ruin, it will begin with the collapse of its cornerstone.
Ellen Hopkins is a former freelance journalist and the award-winning author of 20 nonfiction books for young readers, 13 bestselling young adult novels-in-verse, and three novels for adult readers. She lives near Carson City NV with her extended family, two dogs, one rescue cat, and two ponds of koi. Learn more at www.ellenhopkins.com