Ducks, Dixie Chicks, racist mascots and the First Amendment

For all the national debate over the meaning and intent of the Second Amendment that’s raged in the country in the last few years, this week revealed that America jumps right over the First Amendment to get to the more intense debate, which is a bit odd because the First Amendment is a much more interesting and sweeping amendment. That’s why it came first.

Many Americans, this week’s news stories confirm, don’t have a clue what it says or what it means.

It’s simple, really:

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.

This week’s suspension of a reality show star by the A&E Network, based on an interview in a magazine, brought a wave of claims of free speech violations.

“I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment,” Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said in a statement. In taking his office a few years ago, he swore to protect and uphold a Constitution that he clearly does not understand.

“The right to free speech has nothing to do with having a gig on television,” conservative commentator Jonathan Tobin rightly points out. “No one has a right to such a job and nothing prevents those who run these outfits from choosing who works for them. That applies to (ex-MSNBC host Martin) Bashir as well as to Robertson.”

Liberals, too, mold the First Amendment to suit their purposes. One of the most popular musical acts of the ’90s, the Dixie Chicks, were banned from country music stations when they dared criticize President Bush. Their careers collapsed. They still tour occasionally, but not in the land of the free.

A violation of free speech? So opponents of the war in Iraq said. They were wrong. The government played no role in their destruction and didn’t punish them for the beliefs.

But the “Duck” controversy isn’t the only story in the news this week that invokes an application of the First Amendment which inspires debate.

Yesterday in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker signed a bill that critics say weakens a state law to rid the state of racist nicknames in the state’s schools.

Under current law, a single complaint about a nickname can spark a review of a nickname, placing the burden on a school district to defend it. Now, it will require a petition drive. The new law also wipes out all existing state orders for schools to eliminate racist nicknames.

In making his decision, Walker raised “free-speech” issues:

After careful consideration of the arguments, both for and against this bill, I have decided to sign it into law. The bill creates a process by which the citizens in the communities affected have input and direct involvement in the undertaking of changing a school mascot.

I am very concerned about the principle of free speech enshrined in our U.S. Constitution. If the state bans speech that is offensive to some, where does it stop? A person or persons’ right to speak does not end just because what they say or how they say it is offensive. Instead of trying to legislate free speech, a better alternative is to educate people about how certain phrases and symbols that are used as nicknames and mascots are offensive to many of our fellow citizens. I am willing to assist in that process.

With that in mind, I personally support moving away from nicknames or mascots that groups of our fellow citizens find seriously offensive, but I also believe it should be done with input and involvement at the local level.

“The governor apparently does not understand that the First Amendment protects citizens from government censorship,” ACLU Wisconsin executive director Chris Ahmuty said in a statement.

Government programs are not allowed to offend, harm or otherwise discriminate against citizens on the basis of the First Amendment. The First Amendment simply doesn’t apply when it’s the government taking action.”

This will most certainly end up in court over the question of whether the government can regulate the speech of government.