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The First Amendment protects you

What does the First Amendment mean to you? What does it mean to this country?

It’s not an easy thing to answer, because the amendment encompasses so many aspects of our lives.

It says: “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 five tenets of the amendment touch our lives in countless ways: how and where we worship; what we are allowed to say or do; what we can publish or not (anyone who uses Facebook publishes content every time they post); how and where we can protest and gather; and how we can petition our government.

Too often, people distort the purpose of the amendment in ways that fit their agenda. It does not, for example, guarantee you the right to criticize your employer and not be fired. It does not guarantee you the right to speak your beliefs on someone else’s private property — like a business, home or even private university. It does not mean you can write what you want on Facebook or Twitter without consequences. Those are private businesses that can do what they want when it comes to banning users or customers.

The First Amendment exists to protect us from an overreaching government that seeks to censor or silence or otherwise interfere in the lives of citizens. It protects us from a government-sponsored religion or a government that seeks to limit our religion, no matter what faith we adhere to.

Here at the newspaper, the First Amendment guarantees our right to publish, or not publish, what we want. There are exceptions, but generally speaking, the amendment protects us. You may not always agree with what we publish, but it’s protected under the First Amendment, the same way your opinions are protected.

When it comes to speech, you are largely free to say what you want. “Speech” includes the words coming out of your mouth, but also a host of other things, like clothing, yard signs, art, online posts, etc. At least one court has found that “liking” something on Facebook qualifies as speech. There are a few limits when it comes to speech. Speech that incites violence or is obscene or a solicitation to commit crimes or plagiarism or “fighting words” is not protected.

There are constant threats to our First Amendment rights, even if most of us are unaware of it. Our president has advocated for opening up libel laws so it is easier to sue media outlets. It’s not clear exactly what he means by this but what is clear is that he does not think news outlets should be able to publish information he doesn’t like or agree with.

And while his supporters might like the sound of that, they would no doubt object if a Democrat in the White House sought to limit the First Amendment rights of Fox News. Trump seems to lack a basic understanding of the First Amendment, but so do many Americans.

A public figure like Trump has a pretty high hurdle to clear to prove libel. A public figure has to prove that the publisher of the false information acted with “actual malice.” That means the publisher knew the info was false or should have known. That’s not easy to prove.

Another misconception about the amendment is that it protects prayer in school. It protects an individual’s right to pray in school, but it does not protect a public school-sponsored prayer event that students are required to attend. That would impose a religion onto people who may have no desire to participate in that religious activity. People often lament that our country took a turn for the worse when “they took prayer out of school” but prayer is still allowed. Students can pray whenever they like.

Over the past couple weeks, and in today’s newspaper, we sought to further explain the First Amendment and how it impacts your life. We will continue to do so in the weeks to come. Our hope is that our readers will gain a better understanding of the amendment. Armed with greater knowledge, we hope they will be better prepared to defend it. Our country is great for many reasons, and the First Amendment is chief among them.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.