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

Even presidents are not above the law in the United States



"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

The executive and judicial branches can have conflicts of interest at times ...

If the government makes the laws, is the government itself above those laws? Or in other words, can the laws be made not to apply to the people in those governments? In the United States, the answer to this question is a resounding "no," because there are mechanisms in place to punish officials who break the laws. These laws apply to everyone universally, including the President of the United States himself (or herself). This is not so much a problem for members of Congress, you see, because when members of Congress break the laws, they can be prosecuted by the executive branch in the courts of the judicial branch (with certain exceptions for when the legislature is in session) just like anyone else can. When lesser judges break the law, they can be prosecuted by the executive branch in courts presided over by higher-ranking judges; so there are mechanisms in place to prevent this as well.


White House

... so all branches of the government are subject to impeachment and removal from office

But if the judges of the Supreme Court break the laws, there is a conflict of interest coming from the ability to be the judges in their own cases, which allows them to avoid negative judgments against themselves even when they're guilty. A similar situation applies when the President of the United States breaks the law, because the President can refuse to allow himself (or herself) to be prosecuted. (With control over federal prosecutions, they would thus also have a conflict of interest in their own cases.) Thus, all members of the government are subject to impeachment and removal from office, and that includes members of the executive branch. Most importantly, it includes the President of the United States himself (or herself); so a review of constitutional impeachment procedures would seem appropriate here. I will first show how the process of impeachment works in this country, and then talk about particular instances of attempts at removal.


Supreme Court of the United States

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