College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

Five parts, three tests: knowing your First Amendment rights … and determining if you still have them

By Michael Bugeja
Greenlee School Director

The following is the text of Michael Bugeja's speech delivered on April 15 at the First Amendment Day Feast.

Bugjea First Amendment Day Speech
Greenlee Director Michael Bugeja speaks about First Amendment freedoms on Central Campus during the 2nd annual First Amendment Day. Photo by Daniela Dimitrova, Greenlee Assistant Professor.

The First Amendment has five parts and three tests. It reads:

"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."

The Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication celebrates the First Amendment as an educational function at a land-grant institution whose mission is based on the Bill of Rights.

Some Americans do not recognize their rights. Many more cannot determine whether they still have them.

The parts pertain to religion, free speech, free press, assembly and petition. The three tests are associated with interference, distribution and education.

The five parts of the First Amendment undergird the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. All of our freedoms, personal and collective, rely on those parts to varying degrees.

Part One: Religion

Because of the First Amendment, the government cannot create a state religion. Many of us cannot imagine life in the United States with a federal faith. When we hear the word “ministry,” we think of theology, not government. Without the First Amendment, that word—ministry—could mean a government office, as in the U.S. Ministry of Divine Intervention.

The operative word there is “intervention,” not divine. That word, “divine,” would be prescribed entirely by government. The First Amendment forbids government from interfering with a person’s right to practice religion—or, equally as important—not to practice religion.

Part Two: Free Speech

The First Amendment grants people the right to speak openly—again without government interference. Many of us cannot imagine life in the United States with an Office of Prior Review housing agents in federal libraries—we wouldn’t call them “public libraries,” because little would be public about them. Agents would scan for correctness every letter to the editor before opinions could be published.

The First Amendment forbids government from interfering with a person’s right to speak openly, especially when criticizing public officials.

Part Three: Free Press

The First Amendment ensures the free flow of ideas through any medium—from sign posts to Web sites—to disseminate news, images, sounds, symbols, research, entertainment and opinion. The government may not interfere, especially with news.

When we hear the word “news source,” we think of a person. Without a free press, we would think of “official sources,” or bureaucrats. Many of us cannot imagine life in the United States with a Ministry of Information Management employing spokespersons dictating the news, programming music, and policing

The First Amendment goes beyond allowing freedom of expression. It allows the people to own the media and hold the government accountable.

Part Four: Assembly

The First Amendment also allows the people to gather as a group—to march for civil rights, to protest civil wrongs, to call for resignations of officials at buildings symbolizing their power.

When Americans hear the word “camp,” we think of hiking and Fourth of July celebrations. But if the government forbade the right to assemble, all those who did would be detained at another kind of camp. Many of us cannot imagine a U.S. Registry of Detention Camps.

The First Amendment goes beyond allowing the right to assemble. It means the people can join or associate with groups or organizations, even ones critical of government.

Part Five: Petition

Finally the First Amendment allows people to collect signatures to support or appeal any law, policy or action of the government. When Americans hear the word “petition,” we think about “signatures” not subpoenas.

Our personal signature is a symbol of our liberty. It represents both our identity and myriad freedoms, as the 56 signatures did on the Declaration of Independence—a petition against tyranny.

Many of us cannot imagine a Federal Office of Summons and Petition prosecuting the people for supporting a cause, or rejecting one.

The First Amendment goes beyond the right to sign a petition. It includes the right to gather and present them and to participate in creating laws by referendum.

The Three Tests

Now that we recognize our rights, how can we test to determine if we still have them?

To do so, you should know a little about the history of the First Amendment. That history begins in Virginia in the century preceding the American Revolutionary War. Sir William Berkeley, the royal governor of the imperial colony of Virginia, articulated the Crown’s position rather bluntly. He stated:

“I thank God, we have no free schools nor printing [presses]; and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world; and printing has divulged them, and libels against the government. God keep us from both.”

A hundred years later another Virginian, George Mason, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights upon which was based the U.S. Bill of Rights. This section appears in the Virginia Declaration:

Section 12. That the freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments.

The Virginia Declaration of Rights influenced yet another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, who penned the first part of the Declaration of Independence.

From Jefferson we get the three tests to determine the health of the First Amendment.

Jefferson wrote: “[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Jefferson qualified that remark, associating free speech with distribution and education.

He wrote: “But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them [my italics].”

From this passage we get the three tests: interference, distribution, and education.

Test One: Interference

In describing the five parts of the First Amendment, the phrase—“Many of us cannot imagine”—was used. Many of us cannot imagine:

“A U.S. Ministry of Divine Intervention” prescribing government religion.

“An Office of Prior Review” prescribing what you can and cannot say, write or think.

“A Ministry of Information Management” dictating the nightly news.

“A U.S. Registry of Detention Camps” imprisoning those who march or assemble.

“An Office of Summons and Petition” prosecuting the people for supporting or rejecting a policy, law or cause.

Many of us cannot imagine an America with these offices and agencies. The problem is that some Americans can. Ask yourself:

If allowed, would some people establish an official religion?

Would some prescribe acceptable speech, thought and mannerism?

Would some dictate the news?

Would some detain adversaries in camps, depriving them of basic rights?

Would some replace our personal signature with an identity tag?

Test Two: Distribution

Free speech is meaningless if no one can hear it, see it, read it or somehow discern it. That is why distribution is a test of the First Amendment.

Theft of newspapers is a widespread phenomenon, especially on college campuses.

Some recent examples:

The major of Berkeley discarded 1,000 copies of the Daily Californian because it endorsed his political opponent.

Several thousands copies of The Triangle at Drexel University were destroyed because the perpetrators were upset by editorial cartoons.

At the University of Wisconsin at Platteville campus some 3,000 copies of the Exponent student newspaper disappeared from distribution boxes.

Almost the entire press run of the Highlander newspaper was taken from distribution racks at the University of California-Riverside, with part of the reprinted run stolen four days later.

You can read about dozens more incidents like these by visiting the Student Press Law Center Web site. By the way, some of those stories may be written by Jessica Anderson, a Greenlee School journalism student, who last year competed and this year won an internship at the Center.

Test Three: Education

Thomas Jefferson may have preferred newspapers to government. But he further qualified that remark, associating free speech with education:

“But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them [my italics].”

The role of both education and a free press is the same in a republic: to inform citizens so that they can make intelligent choices in the voting booth.

Because we elect our representatives, public information and knowledge are paramount.

Education keeps legislators accountable, not the other way around.

John Jay, first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, upheld that idea. “I consider knowledge to be the soul of a republic,” Jay wrote in 1785, noting that powerbrokers can be morally weak or even evil. Thus, citizens of the new nation needed information and enlightenment.

“Education is the way to do this, and nothing should be left undone to afford all ranks of people the means of obtaining a proper degree of it at a cheap and easy rate.”

Jay’s vision became reality with the passage of the Morrill Acts, which designated land and funds to provide access to higher education.

Iowa was the first state in the nation to accept the terms of the Morrill Act of 1862. Iowa State College was the first institution to be designated a land-grant institution in 1864.

Appropriately, journalism at Iowa State College was founded in 1905, making the Greenlee School one of the oldest in the country. When we celebrate our centennial next year, we also will honor the role of public education and the First Amendment.

Free speech is meaningless without education. And education is meaningless without free speech. You can’t have one without the other.

As Greenlee School alumnus Terry Anderson notes, “If government is able to limit information then they are taking away from us a major part of freedom of speech. I can say anything I want to say, but if I do not know what I am talking about and lack the information to find out, then what good is talking?”

That is why faculty and students at the Greenlee School talk about the First Amendment during our annual celebration. That is why it is important for you to know the five parts and three tests to determine your rights. That is why you should attend events and be informed. Without information and education, America would be a different place and you, a different person, afraid of the state religion; afraid of your thoughts, words and deeds; afraid of the state-run media.

In such a country, if you rejected that religion, or spoke openly or otherwise challenged the conventional wisdom, by assembling in public or signing a petition, you would be identified by the tag on your wrist, summoned to the tribunal and detained in a camp without due process.

Can that happen in America? Is that happening as we speak? You have the means to discern that for yourself because you are educated and informed. The Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication educates new generations and informs them about their rights. We “walk the walk” so that you can “talk the talk.”

Today, at our First Amendment Days celebration, we invite you to walk with us.

“South African And American Journalism – A Comparative Study,” by Moegsien Williams, Emory University Journalism Program; retrieved 12 April 2004 from the World Wide Web:

“Great books online,” Columbia Encyclopedia; retrieved 12 April 2004 from the World Wide Web:

“Common Good,” John Jay, Michigan Council for Social Studies; retrieved 12 April 2004 from the World Wide Web:

Last updated: April 20, 2004

-- Tue, 20 Apr 2004 --