Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Rob Curley: The First Amendment doesn’t necessarily mean what you think, so here’s how it really works

UPDATED: Sat., Jan. 9, 2021

Perry White was one of my favorite newspaper editors. No, not Clark Kent’s boss at the Daily Planet.

This Perry White edited the Watertown Daily Times. In New York. The state, not the city. It’s a great family-owned newspaper that was once the smallest in the nation to have a D.C. bureau, a distinction now held by this very newspaper.

Perry flew to Spokane to visit us and check out the paper a couple of years ago, and we were friends ever since. He died this summer and it hit me way harder than I thought it might. Moments like that make you remember things you didn’t understand meant so much to you, some of them so simple.

Like the time I posted a photo of my undershirt on Facebook – which I do more than you probably want to know, but it’s also not what it might seem – and Perry immediately commented on it. These T-shirts have messages on them. Sometimes slogans. Sometimes team mascots. Sometimes how I feel that day. And sometimes things that show what I stand for.

“Best shirt you own.” It was all he said. He was right.

It’s a comfy red shirt with the First Amendment on the front in that old handwriting that so many of us equate with the pictures we’ve seen of the original Bill of Rights. It matters for obvious reasons, so much so that a copy of that same text hangs in my office and there’s even a steel version of it that’s often tucked in my wallet.

This metal-detector loving version lets me discuss the Fourth Amendment with anyone else in the security line at the Spokane International Airport who might feel like talking about constitutional law.

What can I say? I love and respect all of the amendments, not just one. Or two. Even when I’m standing shoeless in front of a TSA agent who clearly doesn’t have a sense of humor.

There’s a reason why our nation’s founders made this particular one the first of our Constitution’s amendments. It’s because it would lay down what they felt were the five essential freedoms that would make the United States of America the freest country in the world. The rights they deemed so important to protect for its new citizens were religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

We all know that. But it’s also clear that many of us don’t exactly understand it.

With all of the events of, let’s say, the last three or four days or so, maybe it’s time for a quick civics lesson – especially since so many people have been talking about “censorship” and saying the First Amendment had been violated when certain social media accounts began to disappear Friday.

It will be like a refresher course, only we can use real-world examples. And we’ll do it without putting on any pants as we read the morning newspaper.

To quote Inigo Montoya, the most passionate character from one of my favorite movies of all time: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Well, this isn’t really one word. It’s 45 words strung together as a single sentence with enough punctuation and random capitalization to drive a newspaper’s copydesk to the brink.

Pay close attention to the first five words of the First Amendment. That’s where a very important point is going to be made early in this granddaddy of run-on sentences:

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.

Did you catch how it all began?

Those opening words are very specific that government cannot violate any of those rights, including personal censorship, but they also don’t apply to businesses or life, in general. They apply to the laws that can and cannot be written.

In case you’re wondering, this is exactly why a newspaper not running your letter does not violate your First Amendment rights. Newspapers in the United States are not controlled by the government in any way … for the same reason.

However, we aren’t really looking for reasons not to run your letter. Do you have any idea how hard it is to fill this many pages every day? Just keep it relatively civil, stick to the word count and follow the timeline guidelines, and we’re almost certainly running it.

In regards to Freedom of Speech, you absolutely have the right to say what you want. It’s protected by the law of the land.

But the First Amendment does not shield people from the consequences of those words.

And we all know that.

That consequences part is a lesson most of us learned back in the second grade when we stood up in class and loudly said the principal is a “big weenie who dresses funny.” That speech was totally protected by the Bill of Rights. But the loss of recess for a week wasn’t because the government was punishing us. It was because Mrs. Voldemort can’t take a joke.

We all know that if we run through the aisles of our favorite grocery stores behaving in a way that violates that store’s policies and we’ve been asked to stop, we can be asked to leave. Because it’s private property, that is completely within that store’s rights.

Unless you didn’t know they could bar you from ever shopping there again for doing something they told you not to do – and I’m not saying some of you might have done this, because we all know you forgot your mask in the car – I’m just saying, why even jeopardize not being able to go to their bakery again? Delicious.

Well, if you didn’t know that, now you do.

This brings us to all of the things that have happened since the last time you read the Sunday newspaper.

Not that I’m getting too specific here, but all of this means when someone’s social media accounts are disabled or their lucrative book contract is canceled, no constitutionally ensured rights have been impeded on. That’s a relief, right?

Still, there’s something else that’s been bugging me related to the First Amendment that clearly we should clarify. Please notice the word “peaceably” in front of the part that references protests. (Of course, our nation’s founders referred to this as “assemble” because they talked kinda weird back in 1789. Amirite?)

When you’re laying out how you think an entire country oughta run, and you’re only using 45 words, every word counts. And “peaceably” is a biggie in this one.

We should go into that in more detail later, but being completely honest, the courts are going to deal with that and they all look much better in a robe than I do, so maybe we let them explain it. Plus, we all know what the word “peaceably” means, right?

You know, this little civics review just gave me another goofy idea. Maybe next week, we all can take the new test that must be passed to become a U.S. citizen!

Though I’ve looked at it, and – spoiler alert – we aren’t even coming close to passing this thing. It’s nuts. Seriously, we don’t have a prayer of a chance. Not in a month of Sundays.

So maybe that’s a terrible idea. I apologize.

Seems like most of us probably should have paid more attention in our high school government/civics classes. Though I’m not really that sure it would have mattered. This test is impossible – like trying to properly pronounce Gonzaga if you’re a television broadcaster. The questions on this new U.S. citizenship test are incredibly obscure.

Only a few people might know such trivial detail.

Like Ken Jennings. He could pass it. Possibly, a newspaper editor. I’ll call one on Monday and ask.

Here’s another idea: Maybe we all could study together for this test! Well, not actually together, because of all of this COVID stuff, but we could study at the same time! Study buddies!

My guess is there will be lots of little things – just like all of this First Amendment stuff we just talked about – that don’t match up with what others have told you to be true. Interestingly enough, the government has chosen for this citizenship test to be based upon real facts, not “alternative” facts.

What if starting next week, we began to go through the questions on that test? Maybe we can even talk more about the Bill of Rights. It could be like the civics class we didn’t pay attention to when we were younger, only now, we’re all adults, so we know how important it is to understand things that have a huge bearing on our lives.

Like how our democracy works. Or how to run that damn new air fryer we got for Christmas.

We should come up with a cool name for this new weekly study group that will run in our Sunday newspaper until we all feel like we understand what being a responsible citizen is. It should have the kind of name that would look good on a shirt.

You know, like something my friend Perry would have said something to me about on Facebook. Miss you, buddy.

More from this author