The 1st Amendment

September 20th, 2018

“This is a public service announcement
With guitar
Know your rights
All three of them

Number one
You have the right not to be killed
Murder is a crime
Unless it was done
By a policeman
Or an aristocrat
Oh, know your rights

And number two
You have the right to food money
Providing of course
You don’t mind a little
Investigation, humiliation
And if you cross your fingers

Know your rights
These are your rights
Hey, say, Wang

Oh, know these rights

Number three
You have the right to free speech
As long as

You’re not dumb enough to actually try it

Know your rights
These are your rights
Oh, know your rights
These are your rights
All three of ’em
It has been suggested in some quarters
That this is not enough

Get off the streets
Get off the streets!”


from “Know Your Rights”, a song from the Clash


I was at Voces de la Frontera last night. I was there to help teach the citizenship class. The class always starts late, and there is always a benign sort of chaos. We have several instructors, and we divided the students among ourselves. I wound up with two young Latinos, Juan and Christobal. Juan had already sent in his citizenship application. Christobal, not yet. Both of them needed to study the civics questions for the citizenship interview. So, that is the area where we spent our time.


One of the questions that can be asked during the citizenship interview is: “What is one right or freedom from the First amendment?”


There are six possible answers to this question: “Speech”, “Religion”, “Assembly”, “Press”, and “Petition the government”.


My experience has been that the people studying for the citizenship test generally know these book answers. If I ask them the question concerning the First Amendment, they can quickly spit an answer back at me. That is probably good enough for the interview. It’s not good enough for me.


When we got to this question, I asked Juan and Christobal if they could describe these rights. I got a glassy stare back from them. I told them that the interviewer probably won’t ask them to explain these rights in the Constitution. However, want to know that they know this stuff. I want them to understand their rights, once they become U.S. citizens. These things are important. These rights are fundamental.


I asked Christobal to tell me about freedom of speech. He shrugged and said, “Libertad de expresión”.


I smiled and nodded, and then I said, “That’s right, but you got to do it in English.”


Christobal laughed.


I went on, “Okay, so what is ‘freedom of speech’? What does it look like?”


Juan said, “We can say things?”


I told him, “Yes! We can say whatever we want. That is freedom of speech.”


Then I asked Juan, “So, what is ‘freedom of religion’ all about?”

Juan answered, “A person is free to practice any religion, or not to practice any religion at all.” Juan was proud of that answer, and he was right.

I wanted some more. “So, what does it look like? How would I know ‘freedom of religion’ if I saw it?”

There was an awkward pause.

I thought for moment. I had gone to the Lake Park Synagogue in the morning to worship with the congregation there. It was Yom Kippur. I reached into my back pocket and pulled out the black yarmulke that Karin had knit for me years ago. I put the skullcap on my head and told them, “This yarmulke is ‘freedom of religion’. Jews wear it to pray. When a Muslim woman wears a hijab around her head, that also ‘freedom of religion’. What a person wears, or eats, or does can all be part of freedom of religion. Got it?”

Christobal and Juan nodded.

I asked them, “What about ‘freedom of assembly’? What is that?”

Christobal said, “When we get together?”

“Exactly. Frank and Christobal and Juan can sit here in this room without worrying about the cops busting in the door. We are assembled here. When Voces has its May Day rally, that is an assembly too.”

“What do you think about ‘freedom of the press’? What is that?”

Christobal said, “It is about the news?”

“Yeah. ‘Press’ is an old word. They used to make newspapers with a printing press. Now, the ‘press’ means anything with the news: TV, radio, Internet, newspapers, magazines. The media can say whatever they want to say, regardless of that guy in the White House.”

The Bill of Rights actually means something. These guys need to know that.

We all need to know that.





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