A Declaration of Independence for Speech; Freedom to Say What You Want Doesn't Mean They Will listen.(OPED)(SWEET LAND OF LIBERTY)

Article excerpt


A failing of our school systems is that too many students, including those on college campuses, do not fully understand the history of the First Amendment, its evolution, and the protections it guarantees a speaker, however unpopular the message is. Other Americans, no longer in school, also miss the point. July 4th should be a reminder.

Bob Roenigk, a reader from Needville, Texas, takes me to task for a column I wrote about Janis Heaphy, publisher of the Sacramento Bee, who was booed off the stage before she could finish her commencement address at California State University.

The hecklers in the audience objected to her concerns about whether Attorney General John Ashcroft - in enforcing our need for security against terrorism - was adhering to the American values of due process (fairness) with regard to racial profiling and allowing government agents to listen in on conversations between detainees and their lawyers.

Mr. Roenigk writes: "Our First Amendment is clear that 'Congress shall pass no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.' Congress did not intervene in preventing Ms. Heaphy from finishing her speech. The audience did that. Our founding fathers did not include a provision mandating that citizens must listen to what someone else is saying."

In historical fact, however, since the ratification of the 14th Amendment (1868), the scope and power of the First Amendment have been greatly expanded to include the free-speech protections of individual Americans from all government entities: federal (the Congress and other branches of the national government), state and local. For example, if at a public college, a student or professor charges that the administration has abused his or her First Amendment rights of speech or press, an action or redress can be filed in court.

The 14th Amendment states: "Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." That includes the Bill of Rights.

It took the Supreme Court many years to rule that because the 14th Amendment, and all Bill of Rights' amendments, extend, as Justice Hugo Black said, "to all people of the nation." But still, in the April 19 edition of The Washington Times, a letter writer believes that "only the federal government is restricted by the First Amendment."

The persistence of Justice Black finally persuaded the court also to incorporate the right to a public trial; protection from unreasonable searches and seizures; the right to counsel; the right against self-incrimination; the right to an impartial jury; and the right against being placed in double jeopardy. …