Civil Order vs. First Amendment in Recent Weeks, Congress Has Taken on a Host of Issues That Could

Article excerpt

For many, the guarantees contained in the First Amendment to the US Constitution - freedom of religion, speech, and the press - define what it means to be an American.

But establishing what those guarantees look like in practice may never have been harder than it is today.

Suddenly, Washington seems awash in issues that impact First Amendment rights. From attempts to regulate Internet pornography to the posting of the Ten Commandments in schools, a renewed push to ban flag desecration, and even campaign-finance reform, lawmakers are struggling to balance historic freedoms against protection from hazards inherent in modern society. The push for laws that would affect First Amendment guarantees comes from both sides of the political aisle. It could reflect a desire to impose a measure of control on a world that seems to spin faster every day. "Our elected leaders are picking up on an almost desperate wish by many Americans for more civility and order in their lives," says Kenneth Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. Some believe that regulating offensive speech is a way to obtain that order, says Mr. Paulson. "That's a myth, not to mention unconstitutional," he continues. "It reflects a society under stress." For Congress, the main source of that stress today is kids and guns. The recent debate in the House over juvenile-justice legislation ventured far afield into First Amendment territory. Members rejected an attempt to ban the dissemination to youths of violent videos, movies, and other media as an infringement on free speech. But they approved amendments that would allow posting the Ten Commandments in schools, filtering out objectionable Internet material in schools, and the use of religious items in Columbine High School memorials. Proponents said these moves are meant to show that Congress "stands with parents," in a phrase used by Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois, in efforts to raise good kids amid media depictions of violence, promiscuity, and hate. Trouble is, these actions may well violate the First Amendment admonition that Congress "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." In 1980, for instance, the US Supreme Court struck down a state law requiring that the Ten Commandments be shown in public schools. The prospect of a court fight does not daunt some backers. "This is almost a debate with the Supreme Court," Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) of Arkansas told Freedom Forum's online news service. Congress is considering some 30 bills with First Amendment implications, according to the Washington-based Freedom Forum. …