For many, the guarantees contained in the First Amendment to the
US Constitution - freedom of religion, speech, and the press -
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
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
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
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. …