“Most citizens,” writes columnist Nat Hentoff, “are largely uneducated about their own constitutional rights and liberties.”
The following true incident is a case in point for Hentoff’s claim. A young attorney, preparing to address a small gathering about the need to protect freedom, especially in the schools, wrote the text of the First Amendment on a blackboard. After carefully reading the text, a woman in the audience approached the attorney, pointed to the First Amendment on the board and remarked, “My, the law is really changing. Is this new?” The woman was a retired schoolteacher.
For more than 200 years, Americans have enjoyed the freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion, among others, without ever really studying the source of those liberties, found in the Bill of Rights — the first 10 amendments to our U. S. Constitution.
A short summary of the first 10 amendments shows how vital these freedoms are.
The First Amendment protects the freedom to speak your mind and protest in peace without being bridled by the government. It also protects the freedom of the media, as well as the right to worship and pray without interference.
The Second Amendment guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” This is one of the most controversial provisions of the Bill of Rights. Indeed, there are those who claim that gun ownership in America should be restricted solely to the police and other government officials.
America was born during a time of martial law. British troops stationed themselves in homes and entered property without regard to the rights of the owners. That is why the Third Amendment prohibits the military from entering any citizen’s home without “the consent of the owner.”
There’s a knock at the door. The police charge in and begin searching your home. They invade your privacy, rummaging through your belongings. You may think you’re powerless to stop them, but you’re not. The Fourth Amendment prohibits the government from searching your home without a warrant approved by a judge. But what about other kinds of invasions? Your telephone, mail, computer and medical records are now subject to governmental search.
You cannot be tried again after having been found innocent. The government cannot try you repeatedly for the same crime, hoping to get the result they want. It’s one of the legal protections of the Fifth Amendment.
The Sixth Amendment spells out the right to a “speedy and public trial.” An accused person can confront the witnesses against him and demand to know the nature of the charge. The government cannot legally keep someone in jail for unspecified offenses.
Property ownership is a fundamental right of free people. In a legal dispute over property, the Seventh Amendment guarantees citizens the right to a jury trial.
Like any other American citizen, those accused of being criminals have rights under the Constitution as well. In some countries, the government abuses what they see as disloyal or troublesome citizens by keeping them in jail indefinitely on trumped-up charges. If they cannot pay their bail, then they’re not released. The Eighth Amendment is, thus, similar to the Sixth — it protects the rights of the accused. These are often the people most susceptible to abuse and who have the least resources to defend themselves. This amendment also forbids the use of cruel and unusual punishment.
The framers of our Constitution were so concerned about civil liberties that they wished to do everything conceivable to protect our future freedom. Some of the framers opposed a bill of rights because it might appear that these were the only rights the people possessed. The Ninth Amendment remedied that by providing that other rights not listed were nonetheless retained by the people. Our rights are inherently ours, and our government was created to protect them. The government does not, nor did it ever, have the power to grant us our rights.
Ours is a federal system of government. This means that power is divided among local, state and national entities. The Tenth Amendment reminds the national government that the people and the states retain every authority that is not otherwise mentioned in the Constitution. Congress and the President have increasingly assumed more power than the Constitution grants them.
Having stood the test of time, there is little doubt that the Bill of Rights is the greatest statement for freedom ever drafted and put into effect. In the end, however, it is the vigilance of “we the people” that will keep the freedoms we hold so dear alive. Therefore, know your rights, exercise them freely or you’re going to lose them.
John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute.