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Are First Amendment Rights also Natural Rights?

The key right is not the freedom to speak, but the right to access uncensored information.

by James Leroy Wilson
February 11, 2010

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Are First Amendment Rights also Natural Rights?

You probably don't get these kind of emails. They come to me because of the nature of my work.

I get messages saying that rights are natural or God-given, and apply to individuals - not to groups, and certainly not to corporations.

I've received other emails objecting to the term "Constitutional rights" because it supposedly implies that our rights are derived from the Constitution, rather than from Nature or Nature's God.

In the wake of the Citizens United case, the objections got much louder. Our First Amendment rights, the argument goes, apply only to individuals, not to corporations!

I believe some clarification is in order.

We do have what could be called natural rights, but these rights are derived from natural laws that make peaceful co-existence possible.

The two laws are:

1. Do not initiate force or threaten force against another person.
2. Do not encroach upon, take, or damage property that does not belong to you.

My right to live exists because of, and only in relation to, the law that prohibits others to use force against me, and the right of others to live exists because the same law constrains me. My right to property exists because of the law that prohibits others from taking what does not belong to them.

We do not have any other "Natural" or "God-given" rights. All other rights are claimed by contract.

True, I do "naturally" have freedom of worship on my own property. But if I voluntarily choose to live in a community where church attendance is required, I give up this freedom of worship. Likewise, I do not have the freedom to worship as I please on the property someone else.

I also "naturally" have the freedom to say whatever I want on my own property. But when I'm on another person's property, I have the right to say whatever I want only if the owner permits it.

I have the right to publish anything I want on my own printing press. I do not have the right to publish anything I want on another person's printing press - unless this is agreed to by contract.

Freedom of speech, worship, and the press are not "Natural" or "God-given," except in the sense that you have the right to do as you please on your own property.

So I believe it's a fallacy to say that the First Amendment protects these "rights" to freedom of speech, worship, and the press. It is a further fallacy, then, to say that the First Amendment doesn't apply to corporations.

The intention of the First Amendment is not primarily to protect the freedom of individual speakers, but of the speech itself. It does not primarily protect the freedom of printers, but the content of printed material. It does primarily protect the freedom of religious worshippers, but rather the freedom of the religions themselves.

Yes, the speaker, printer, and religious worshipper are free by implication. But the First Amendment's primary intention is to protect the message, not just the messenger. The preacher's "right to preach" exists because the content of the preaching cannot be censored by Congress. The speaker's "right to speak" exists because the content of the speech cannot be censored by Congress. The printer's right to print exists because the published words cannot by censored by Congress.

These "rights" are not "natural" or "God-given." Any private property owner can censor or restrict conduct as much as he or she pleases. But they are Constitutional rights because Congress cannot impede freedom of religion, speech, or the press.

And here's the key point. If and when Congress does violate the First Amendment and censors speech, it is true the Constitutional rights of the speaker are violated . . . but so are the Constitutional rights of everyone else!

You see, we all have the Constitutional right to hear the speech. We all have the right to read books. Whenever spoken and written words are censored, my right to hear or read the material is violated.

The First Amendment restrains Congress from inhibiting the free flow of information. When it inhibits the flow of information, my right to that information is violated.

In civil society or in "Nature," individuals have the right to censor themselves or others in their employ or on their property. But the federal government cannot censor anything. My right to uncensored information exists only vis-a-vis the federal government, but it is an indispensible right.

In the end, the issue of whether corporations have the "right" to publish something is hardly the issue at all. The core issue is, I have the Constitutional right to any and all information any person or group, including a corporation, seeks to provide me. I have a right to hear their speakers and spokespersons. I have the right to see their ads. If they want to promote candidates or ideas and bash other candidates and ideas, Congress has NO POWER to censor them. The issue isn't that the "rights" of corporations are violated, the issue is that MY First Amendment rights have been violated because I have been denied the censored information.

Here's a thought experiment. Think of your least-favorite corporation. Let's say it is the week before the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. This corporation seeks to purchase ads that expose John Edwards as a fraud and an adulterer. The pre-Citizens United laws on the books would have prohibited this corporation from running the ad.

The issue is not whether this corporation had the "right" to speech. The issue is that their speech itself should have been free, and that because free speech was denied, we as individuals were denied the information.

When the federal government attempts any censorship or prior restraint on speech, or seeks to regulate the financing of speech, its purpose is to deny the American people access to information. When Congress engages in any censorship, it violates the First Amendment rights of not only the speaker, but of me and you.


Comments (1)

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Maggie Gilmore from Wichita, KS writes:
March 2, 2010
Very well put, I hadn't really considered the first amendment in that light. I'd also like to point something out to those who feel that corporations, as employers of many people with individual opinions, should not make public endorsements of political candidates. The employees are not forced to share those opinions. If they disagree strongly or feel the message is biased they can seek employment elsewhere. Only the government has a responsibility to remain unbiased. Anyway, thanks for sharing!

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