As debate over whether to ratify the new constitution raged across the thirteen states, one criticism voiced by many people was the lack of a bill of rights. In many states, ratification was secured upon the promise that a bill of rights would be added as soon as the new government was put in place. After taking office, the First Congress then proposed twelve amendments, and ten of them were ratified by the states to become the Bill of Rights. (In 1992, one of the two amendments that had not been previously ratified passed the three-quarters threshold and became the twenty-seventh amendment, but it is still not usually considered as part of the Bill of Rights. The other proposed amendment remains unratified.)
The wording of the Bill of Rights is very specific as to the Rights that are protected. It is not protecting the rights of government; it is protecting the rights of the people. As it grants right to the people (and some to the states), it becomes a bill of restrictions to the government. The first amendment bars Congress from infringing on rights of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petitioning. The second amendment stops Congress from taking away the right to bear arms. The third keeps the military from forcing people to allow soldiers to live in their homes. Through all ten amendments, we see freedom given to the people and restrictions given to the government.
Over time, however, Congress and the courts have turned the Bill of Rights into a bill of restrictions on the people. The first amendment is the one this has happened to most often. The first amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” This simple phrase has been used multiple times to prohibit mention of religion in any form. Mentioning how God changed your life in your graduation speech does not involve Congress in any way, but this amendment is used to restrict the speech of students. Instead of giving people the right to exercise their religion free from government interference, this phrase of the first amendment is now being used to restrict both free exercise of religion and free speech.
Freedom of speech is also being threatened today. Throughout America's history, the freedom of speech has been protected by the government except in cases where it created actual harm. Defamation and the commonly cited example of “yelling fire in a crowded theater” qualify as cases where actual harm can be inflicted by speech. However, some people are now asking the government to outlaw “hate speech.” This type of speech, while it may be offensive and incorrect, does not cause actual harm. Should this type of speech be tolerated? Yes and no. Attempts by the government to restrict freedom of speech should not be allowed; however, just because someone has the right to say something does not mean that they should say it. However, if they do engage in that type of speech, individuals still have some recourse. If the person is a business owner, we can refuse to patronize their business. If the person has a radio or television show, we can refuse to watch the show. Even if it is just someone who lives down the street from you, we can use our right to free speech to oppose their speech.
There are plenty of other examples of other rights that are being violated by our government. Freedom of the press was threatened recently when the White House wanted to allow an interview with the “press pool” (a collection of news agencies that share costs of covering political events), but refused to allow one member network to be a part of it. The White House did back down under pressure from all the media outlets. The freedom to assemble is threatened by an endless permit process just to hold a public meeting. Certainly, permits should be necessary for some types of assemblies, such as those that need large amounts of space or that will close streets. However, I believe that in general, groups should be allowed to hold meetings free of public restrictions. The freedom from unwarranted search and seizure is violated every time we go to an airport and have to be searched by federal agents before boarding a plane.
The authors of the constitution gave us a Bill of Rights, but the government today is turning it into a bill of restrictions. The only limitations on these rights were placed upon the federal government, not upon the people. However, the government is now using these rights to restrict these rights. Freedom is threatened, and it is up to us to make sure that “the land of the free” does not become “the land of the restricted.”