The Youth and the First

Last week I had the privilege to be a judge for an essay writing contest for middle schoolers and high schoolers to “describe or depict how one or more of the five freedoms listed in the First Amendment affects their daily life.” I have participated in this great project of the ADL for about five of the program’s fifteen year history. I always come away having learned something about the lives of youth today, and people generally.

The students write essays on their choice on the rights of freedom of religion, speech, assembly, press, and to petition the government as extended by the First Amendment. The essays are always compelling, thoughtful, and well-reasoned. The students take the time to think how this amendment impacts their everyday lives, even at their young ages. They’ve learned about the whole amendment and studied its construction and write passionately about their experiences. We should be excited to know that our youth are thinking great thoughts and that they are sensitive people preparing to govern our future.

There is so much talk bandied about by our politicians and activists regarding the First Amendment that it makes you wonder what are they talking about? Most, have invoked “The First” as it relates to the right to free speech. They say, they should be able to do and say anything that they want, regardless of the collateral damage, because of “The First”. It’s interesting as the bills are written and debates are had over the Voting Rights act, the Equality Act, and others, how little they think about the other four rights guaranteed under this amendment. One essay even noted that the newest member of the Supreme Court could not recall all of the five rights when asked during her confirmation hearing; she forgot the right to protest. Go figure. They should think about this in Alabama as they attempt to rewrite their laws to have “rioters” face felony charges and become prohibited from holding elected office. Now I don’t suggest that I remember everything I was taught in middle and high school, or even college, but I know that a Justice of the Supreme Court should know and remember a few things, and the rights guaranteed under the First amendment is one. I also know that the constitution shouldn’t be thrown around only when it’s needed to restrict rights instead of enhancing freedom.

The subjects of the student essays covered their lived experiences with social media and bullying, and lobbying schools to make changes to respect and recognize cultural and physical diversity. Over the years the essays have always revealed students who are proud of their country, the United States of America, and the rights afforded to them by the First Amendment. I say this to say young people are watching very closely the shenanigans of the adults. They know BS when they see it. They know that we are only serious when it suits us. Their passion should always be encouraged and not stifled or molded in hatred and made to conform to a world that isn’t theirs. They know attempts to ignore the impact of technology on our lives is ruining their lives. If we insist on being originalist or textualist, or any other “ist” make sure you heed the real meaning of First Amendment, the power of words and people. If there is any thing we’ve learned in the past four years, it is that.

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