Monday, August 28, 2017

The First Amendment: Protecting freedom of speech and freedom of the press

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

- Evelyn Beatrice Hall, in a statement often misattributed to Voltaire (although the author rightly viewed this as an accurate paraphrase of Voltaire's sentiments)

The first thing many people think of about the Constitution

The Constitution is filled with passages that are of the utmost importance to this country, from separation of powers in the original Constitution to the Bill of Rights in the amendments. But if I were asked which passage may be the most important to the majority of Americans, my vote might well go to this part of the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." (Source: First Amendment) This is the Constitution's famous First Amendment, and it is indeed the first of the ten amendments that make up our modern "Bill of Rights." It is also the first thing that most people think of when they talk about what's important to them in the Constitution, since the rights that we have are easier to visualize than abstract concepts of separation of powers and checks & balances. (Although these things are vitally important, too, as I detail in another post that I wrote elsewhere.)

United States Bill of Rights

Freedom of speech and freedom of the press, and the right to "petition the government"

The bedrock of American political life today may be the parts about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These are both forms of a larger concept called "freedom of expression" - one in the spoken form, and the other in the written form. (Although I'm sure that sign language and other gestures would also be considered to be "freedom of speech" under this constitutional definition, and free expression on the Internet has long been held to be included under this amendment as well.) The right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" is another specific form of this freedom of expression, which is usually written down on paper and other hardcopy material. But it is also sometimes found in the Internet form that I have mentioned as well; and it is well that this freedom of expression (in all of these forms) is protected by the First Amendment. It has been codified as a general principle in all political communication throughout this country - and other communication, for that matter.

Martin Luther King giving his "I Have A Dream" speech, 1963

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Impeachment is an important check even when it's not used

"Therefore, I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow. Vice President Ford will be sworn in as President at that hour in this office."

- President Richard Nixon, in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 8, 1974

Richard Nixon

Impeachment alone doesn't remove presidents ...

In the entire history of the United States, only two presidents have ever been impeached, which were Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Richard Nixon was never actually impeached by either house of Congress. He was, however, credibly threatened with it during the Watergate scandal, and thus forced to resign in this way. It takes both houses of Congress, you see, to remove a president from office. Thus, when the Senate refused to remove Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton during their impeachment trials, the fact that they had been impeached by the House of Representatives to start this process had only a symbolic value. They had to be convicted by the Senate after this to be actually removed from office.

Andrew Johnson

Bill Clinton

... although one president resigned under the threat of impeachment (and subsequent removal)

It is thus one of the ironies of presidential history that both of the impeachments of an American president in our history failed to remove their intended target, while the only president ever to be forced out of office did so only under threat of it. Besides making the point about how both houses of Congress have to be on board with this to pull off a successful removal (as with Nixon), there is one other point to be made here about the power of impeachment, which is that it doesn't have to be actually exercised to fulfill its intended purpose - the mere threat of it (when made credibly) is the only thing that has ever removed a president from office (so far, at least).

White House

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