An amendment for all

Published 10:36 am Saturday, July 3, 2010

This Independence Day weekend reminds us of freedom in its many forms.

Here at the newspaper, we especially are grateful for the five freedoms embodied in the First Amendment to America’s Constitution. It is the basis for our livelihood as editors, writers and publishers, to be certain, but the First Amendment is much more than freedom of the press. It is, from this columnist’s vantage point and at little risk of hyperbole, the cornerstone of our democracy.

Sadly, many Americans are ignorant of the First Amendment, even as they daily exercise the rights it affords them. Surveys show that just 1 in 25 Americans can name the amendment’s five freedoms.

The beauty of the First Amendment is its brevity. Little newsprint is required to reprint the text in its entirety, so we do so here:

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.

That’s it. Simple but powerful.

If in the past 24 hours you have, without fear of reprisal, prayed, sang, read a book, listened to the radio, watched television, surfed the Internet, attended a club meeting, voiced an opinion, gathered with friends, signed a petition, or complained about your government leaders, you have been a practitioner of or participant in the First Amendment. Anyone excluded?

Yet we take those freedoms for granted, even as our fellow man in totalitarian regimes the world over is oppressed, imprisoned and often killed for doing the same. To help raise awareness of First Amendment freedoms, our newspaper is participating in “1 for All,” a nationwide campaign whose goal is to remind Americans that the strongest, most dynamic, most creative and most ambitious nation in the history of the planet is also the most free, thanks to that simple amendment. A series of advertisements over the next several issues will drive home the theme of “One Amendment. Freedom for All.”

A couple of readers have asked sincerely in recent weeks why our newspaper published certain letters to the editor, suggesting that censorship would have been the better course. One reader, in a letter published on this page, questioned our values for allowing other readers to opine on an unemployed, single mother of eight who recently gave birth to quadruplets and for letting another reader criticize the use of what he considered a racist symbol in a public cemetery.

We have a number of values on this page, but a primary one — embodied in a First Amendment that allows our newspaper to exist as something other than a mouthpiece of government and the powerful — guides us: The Opinion page will always be a forum for free expression. We want it to be a marketplace of ideas — primarily yours, with a few of our own tossed in for good measure.

We have a few rules:

* We require you to sign what you write.

* We do not allow you to defame another person, defamation being a legal standard that has been well defined by the courts, leaving much leeway for freedom of expression and criticism of public figures.

* We enforce widely held standards of good taste, rejecting the use of profanity, vulgarity and crudity. (That can be a gray area, but as a Supreme Court justice once said of pornography, we typically know it when we see it.)

* We require writers to stick to topics of public interest. Family disputes or a disagreement between a consumer and a business are best aired out in court rather than on the Opinion page.

It is not necessary — or even desired — that we agree with your opinion. That is the reason we freely and eagerly publish letters and columns that take the newspaper itself, its publisher and its writers to task. Nor do we attempt to ascertain whether the majority of our readers will agree with another reader’s opinion. In an area with Western Tidewater’s political, racial, social and economic diversity, that’s a losing game. Even if such a litmus test could be fairly applied, what a boring forum this would be.

When this page is at its best, its regular readers will be alternatively affirmed and enlightened, inspired and angered, entertained and frustrated, amused and challenged. That’s the way it should be in a free society, where citizens debate ideologies and compete politically at the ballot box and in public forums like the newspaper, rather than by bloodshed in the streets.