Know what it says before the debate

“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.”

For those unfamiliar, the above text is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified on Dec. 15, 1791. It is one of the prime founding laws of our nation, helping to lay the groundwork of what has become the United States of America.

I bring this up because of various debates which have taken place in recent weeks, especially when it comes to political debate.

Many of us are passionate when it comes to our beliefs. It sometimes can be difficult to hear someone say our point of view is incorrect, or to call us evil because we don’t see eye-to-eye on an issue.

So, when a privately owned company tries to remove a platform for our thoughts, or we are “attacked” on social media (or even in our communities) because of thoughts, the immediate rally cry often turns to our First Amendment rights.

We grow up being told we have the right to free speech as Americans. To some extent, that is correct.

Where the issue gets confusing, though, is that the First Amendment says no law can be made to take away that right.

The government is restricted in that way.

The Constitution doesn’t say anything about individuals or private companies providing you with a way to express your thoughts.

Social media companies, for example, are private operations. They are not part of the government, so they do not have to allow you post anything. They can remove your content if they feel you have violated any of their rules. It can even be completely arbitrary, just depending on who is making the decision.

It’s the same with freedom of the press.

The government cannot pass a law restricting journalists from doing their job. There can be no law prohibiting the media’s access to public operations, records, meetings, etc.

Private citizens don’t have to give us anything if they don’t want.

Our religious practices cannot be restricted by the government, nor can the government pass a law showing preference to any particular religion.

So, yes, we have these rights, which cannot be restricted by the government.

At the same time, we have to make certain we understand these rights and use them responsibly.

We can’t demand private citizens, businesses, etc. provide us a platform. That doesn’t take away our freedom of expressing our thoughts, but we have to find another way to do so.

We have the right to peaceably assemble, but that doesn’t mean we can cause a riot or disrupt the community as part of our protest.

It’s easy to get emotional when we get into a debate on an issue.

It’s also important to make sure we are fully informed on the topic before we get into such a debate.

That’s why I always encourage people to do their own research. Look up other points of view, not just those which correspond with your own beliefs.

We are all better off as a people, and as a country, when we are well-informed.

At the very least, try to keep a copy of the Constitution nearby. You never know when it could come in handy.

(Howell, a resident of Colliers, is managing editor of The Weirton Daily Times, and can be contacted at chowell@weirtondailytimes.com or followed on Twitter @CHowellWDT)

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