The classroom where I teach a course at NAU is located in Building 16. If you must know — the course is Underwater Basket Weaving, which was my minor at the Biloxi School of Bartending.
My route to the classroom takes me through an open area outside the building called First Amendment Plaza. On a west-facing wall of the plaza there is a remarkable piece of public art.
Humongous adjacent slabs of iron plate are bolted to wall. Into those plates, in foot-high letters, the text of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution has been incised. At night, the letters are backlit so that the text is visible no matter how dark the night might be. During the day, the weight of the plates and the words they bear loom over the plaza. If one of those puppies came unmoored . . .
The metal plates have oxidized over the years, giving the plates a rusty patina, like a hull in a ship graveyard, while the words appear as sharp and crisp as the day they were cut. How long has it been since the plaza was dedicated? Fifteen years? Twenty? Time deceives me more now than ever. I thought I had more of it than I do, like a sailor who realizes he doesn’t have enough money for one more round and he has no friends left to stand him a pint.
I am fortunate to have a path that brings me before that text. The words give me pause every time I read them. I read them almost every time I’m in the plaza.
“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 to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Recently I read an opinion piece that referred to the First Amendment as “an experiment.” The hypothesis is still being tested. What constitutes free speech now? What doesn’t? Who decides? Is it the Supreme Court? Is it the mob? Is it Google Analytics? It is an attribute of youth to consider the free speech issue settled. It is one of the burdens of middle age to realize the data is suspect and the issue is far from settled. Every day, it seems, the First Amendment is invoked in some context, supporting one view or another.
Yet, it persists as a uniquely American restriction on government—“Congress shall make no law . . .” Congress may want to — but the Constitution they swore to uphold does not permit them to do so.
The First Amendment is chock-full of Big Ideas. Big ideas are always contentious. Pick a clause, any clause. Next Thanksgiving dinner, ask Uncle Roy what he has to say about petitioning the government for a redress of grievances.
Did you forget anything, Mr. Madison? What’s that you say, sir? Perhaps we need another, a second amendment? Yes, sir. That shouldn’t be a problem.