The First Amendment is one of those guarantees that Americans casually accept as their birthright but often find tough to explain.
Make no mistake, says a noted First Amendment scholar, the legal check on government's authority is central to the nation's experience.
"The First Amendment is what made America a more perfect union," said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. "We must not lose sight of that."
The challenges, glories and paradoxes of the famous guarantee will be front and center on Friday at the First Amendment Celebration at Fresno State.
The daylong event is open to the public and will include remarks from Fresno State President Joseph Castro and Fresno Bee Executive Editor Jim Boren, a debate on the release of classified information to the media and a panel discussion on media and politicians.
The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, 10 constitutional amendments that went into effect in 1791.
The First Amendment states: "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."
Seems simple enough.
But as more than two centuries of experience shows, the First Amendment in the real world has been anything but simple.
The reason is to be found in the Constitution's first three words -- "We the people ..."
America is a democracy in which the will of an ever-shifting majority generally prevails. "The people," though, can be a cantankerous and perplexing lot.
It's hardly surprising that the exercise of the First Amendment can get messy. After all, one person's free speech might be another person's treason.
Paulson is a prolific author whose essays explore the never-ending conflict between a democratic society fond of order and the fragility of individual liberty.
Among his writings:
-- On a Hawaii lawthat curbs the rights of celebrity-hunting paparazzi: "Celebrities have exactly the same rights as all citizens -- and no more. Undermining the First Amendment to make your state more appealing to celebrity real estate prospects is truly living on the edge."
-- On an Iowa community college that requires a 10-day notice before students can distribute leaflets on contemporary topics: "There's an irony here. We send young people to colleges to expose them to the marketplace of ideas, but the Des Moines Area Community College is attempting to limit freedom of expression in a way that should never be acceptable in a free society."
-- On a University of Kansas journalism professor who got in big trouble after tweeting an especially harsh criticism of the National Rifle Association: "He made a provocative statement .... But the guarantees of the First Amendment were not intended to protect popular speech. They were intended to prevent punishment of Americans for expressing what the government and others did not want to hear."
Paulson is serious but not tedious about the First Amendment. One of his essays reviews the First Amendment influence of the 1960s-era singer Stephen Stills.
During a telephone interview, Paulson said his speech on Friday will be "fun" and interactive. It's titled "The Great First Amendment Quiz," which means the audience would be wise to bone up on the amendment's actual wording.
The First Amendment, Paulson said, isn't just about freedom of speech or freedom of the press. The amendment's elements have repeatedly worked in tandem to allow "the people" to change and improve their nation. The end of slavery, sparked by Abolitionist newspapers, and the Civil Rights revolution of the mid-20th century, spurred by grassroots marches, are but two example of the First Amendment in action, Paulson said.
"We dare not take it for granted."
If you go:
Date: Friday, Dec. 6
Time: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Fresno State Satellite Student Union
Cost: No admission charge; the public is invited.
Keynote speaker: Dr. Ken Paulson, President, First Amendment Center; Dean, College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.
Presented by: Fresno Regional Foundation, the Fresno State Mass Communication and Journalism Department, The Fresno Bee/fresnobee.com and The Maddy Institute at CSUF.
Event Co-Chairwomen: Betsy A. Hays, Fresno State associate professor, Mass Communication and Journalism Department, and Fresno State senior Veronique Werz
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6272 or email@example.com. Read his City Beat blog at news.fresnobeehive.com/city-beat.