Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Door No. 1: Muskets? or Door No. 2: Free Speech?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Door No. 1: Muskets? or Door No. 2: Free Speech?

Article excerpt

Which right is more important: free speech, or the right to bear arms?

According to the National Rifle Association's new first vice president, actor Charlton Heston, speaking before the National Press Club last week, "the doorway to all freedoms is framed with muskets."

The Second Amendment is the "most vital" amendment, "more essential" than even the First Amendment protections of free speech, press, religion, assembly, and petition of redress of grievances, Mr. Heston said. He's partly right: Some Bill of Rights protections are more important than others, a fact borne out by actual instances when rights collide. For example, when judges have sought to close court proceedings to reporters in an effort to ensure a fair trial, appeals from reporters have resulted in open courts. The First Amendment's protection of press freedom is a "preferred freedom," held in even higher regard by the courts than other liberties. So, too, is free speech, which the late Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo once called "the matrix, the indispensable condition, of nearly every form of freedom." The Second Amendment, however, holds no such preferred position. Far from serving, in Heston's words, as the right "that protects all the others," the right to bear arms has a much narrower and more specific purpose. As the text of the Second Amendment and subsequent interpretation of it by the courts make clear, the right to bear arms has meaning only in connection with citizen service in a government-organized and regulated militia. Debate in the First Congress about this amendment dealt with narrow military questions: maintaining civilian government control over these military forces, the military unreliability of militias as compared with professional armies, possible threats to liberties from armies versus militias, and whether to codify the right of conscientious objectors to opt out of military service (an earlier version of the Second Amendment included such a provision). …

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