This is the nineteenth in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume IXX: Faust Egmont, Etc., Goethe, Doctor Faustus, Marlow
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states:
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.
In that one sentence, the framers memorialized several of the “inalienable rights” central to the premise of the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation. Yet, despite how concise the amendment is, people seem constantly to misapprehend its significance. Here are a couple of critical points where people are often mistaken.
1. The amendment only applies to government action. People constantly confuse their right to free speech with a right to be free from the private consequences of that speech. A speech code by a company or private school is not subject to First Amendment analysis. Likewise, a private club may have religious requirements that a government actor may not.
2. That doesn’t mean that other laws do not matter. Some people on the internet hold the idea that “the First Amendment stops the government from infringing on your free speech, but it doesn’t stop me from punching you in the mouth.” Although that statement is technically accurate, punching somebody in the mouth violates laws independent of the First Amendment. Additionally, civil rights laws, government licensing requirements, and so forth may create obligations for private individuals or companies not to discriminate based on the exercise of certain First Amendment rights.
3. The amendment applies to all government action, not just the federal government. The plain of the first amendment states that “Congress shall pass no law…”; it does not mention state governments. However, a long series of Supreme Court cases has established that the First Amendment (and most of the rest of the Bill of Rights) applies to state action through the “incorporation doctrine”. Even so, the First Amendment is probably redundant in most cases. Each state has its own constitution, and each state constitution includes free speech clause. The New York Court of Appeals, for example, has held that the free speech clause of the New York Constitution provides a greater level of protection than the First Amendment.
4. “Speech” consists of a lot more than just talking. Supreme Court cases have held that the First Amendment’s speech clause protects “expressive conduct.” That can mean a wide range of actions, including burning the American flag, nude dancing, remaining silent, or cross burning.
5. The amendment is especially important because it protects those without political clout. As a practical matter, no government would ever need to be restrained from punishing pro-government speech. Likewise, statements that everybody agrees with are under no threat of suppression. It is the provocative, the unpopular, the revolutionary that needs to be protected. Minority religious groups and others who are heterodox in the myriad ways that people may stray from conventional norms are the people who have the most to fear from popular government, and the most need for an amendment that protects, above all, the freedom of the mind.
Beer of the week: Primus – This week’s reading is set in what is now Belgium, with the principle action taking place in Brussels. So despite the constant references to “Netherlands” and “Netherlanders”, the play is best paired with Belgian beer. Primus is a “premium lager” from Haacht Brewery in Flanders, Belgium. It is a standard European lager; it looks good, smells good, and tastes good. It is a well-balanced, if unexceptional, beer.
Reading of the week: Egmont by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – In this scene, we learn that the Spanish governor of the Netherlands, the Duke of Alba, “published a decree, by which two or three, found conversing together in the streets, are without trial, declared guilty of high treason.” He also prohibited discussion on affairs of state and made criticism of the government a capital offense.
Question for the week: How many rights are in the First Amendment?
This is the seventh in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume VII: Confessions of St. Augustine and The Imitation of Christ
How fortuitous that Good Friday should happen to coincide with my reading of this volume of The Harvard Classics. But it occurs to me that not every reader of this blog is a Christian, and even those who are may not appreciate the import of Good Friday, St. Augustine, or The Imitation of Christ. And so, a quick review:
Good Friday – The Friday before Easter, the day on which Jesus Christ was executed by crucifixion. A day of solemnity and, for many Christians, fasting. Astute observers will notice that Friday is only two days before Sunday, despite the fact that many Christians talk of Jesus being “three days in the grave.” The origin of this apparent counting error is the expression “on the third day.” Jesus died on and was buried late on Good Friday (the first day), remained in the tomb for all of Holy Saturday (the second day) and was raised from the dead first thing in the morning on Easter Sunday (the third day). And so, he was raised on the third day, but was only entombed for one day and two nights.
Augustine of Hippo – Bishop, theologian, philosopher, and canon regular. According to the Wikipedia article about him, Augustine influenced “virtually all subsequent Western philosophy and theology.” He is also a patron saint of brewers.
The Imitation of Christ – An extremely popular Christian devotional book from the late medieval period. According to the introductory note to The Harvard Classics edition, “with the exception of the Bible, no Christian writing has had so wide a vogue or so sustained a popularity as this.” Although published anonymously (which nowise surprising, considering how emphatically the work emphasizes humility,) it is probably the work of Thomas à Kempis.
Thomas à Kempis – Probable author of The Imitation of Christ and a German-Dutch canon regular.
Canons regular – Priests who live communally under a common Rule, most often the Rule of St. Augustine. Distinct from monks in that canons are members of the clergy. In some cases, as at Tongerlo Abbey in Belgium, canons regular got quite good at brewing beer.
Beer – “Proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” – B. Franklin
Beer of the week: Tongerlo Blond – This history of Tongerlo beer begins with the canons regular of Tongerlo Abbey, so it is a particularly apt pairing with Thomas à Kempis. Tongerlo Blond is a bottle-conditioned ale from Haacht Brewery in Belgium. It is a pretty, copper-colored brew. The aroma is of yeast and malt, with hints of banana and honey. The flavor is a bit subdued, but it is quite good.
Reading of the week: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis – The primary theme of this book is retreating from the world to seek spiritual self knowledge. “Better of a surety is a lowly peasant who serveth God, than a proud philosopher who watcheth the stars and neglecteth the knowledge of himself.”
Question for the week: Thomas writes that “the greater and more complete thy knowledge, the more severely shalt thou be judged.” Is this truly an warning against pursuing great learning, or is it simply a reminder that great learning comes with great responsibility?