Charles Dickens unwittingly described our current political situation when writing “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
United States citizens live in an age of unprecedented rights. Our Supreme Court in 2015 upheld the right for gay people to get married. Recently, civil asset forfeiture is being reconsidered, and the apparatuses supporting the war on drugs are beginning to be dismantled. The current generation has upheld the importance of Miranda Rights in Florida v. Powell and more broadly questioned the importance of the police state. The courts agree that speech includes the right to spend money on advertising ideas and that corporations also are entitled to speech protection. This generation realizes that patriotism should not stifle dissent. In fact, the United States Supreme Court recognizes in Snyder v. Phelps that one is even able to legally picket a service member’s funeral. More charter schools are becoming another school choice for poorer Americans and, as a result, are producing better-educated students. The death penalty is illegal in 21 states, and the First Step Act is a good start to sentencing reform. In many ways, we’re living in the best of times.
On the other hand, all is not well in the United States. The current president worked vigorously to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, wanted to use “extreme vetting” of Muslim immigrants and tried to encourage a Muslim registry. His efforts to decry independent media and his support for the death penalty and for unconstitutional stop-and-frisk policies are disgusting remnants of a worse time. However, the dandy Democrats are no lesser of a poison. Rather than condemn authoritarianism, the Democratic Party has looked toward ways of making power polite. Elizabeth Warren’s specific brand of economic populism calls for wealth taxes, which will increase government intrusion into the lives of citizens in a way never before seen. Additionally, Warren calls for eliminating charter schools, which primarily benefit poorer children, while ironically sending her son to a private school. Other Democratic darlings like Beto O’Rourke claim that they’re forcibly going to be taking guns from the American populace.
Outside the larger political scene, First Amendment rights have been largely upheld by the Supreme Court in the 2010s. Janus v. AFSCME successfully argued that labor unions collecting fees from non-union members violates the First Amendment provisions relating to free association and freedom of speech. In Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the court upheld the right of conscience relating to artistic and religious freedom. In 2017, Lee v. Tam upheld the right of trademarking an offensive name. In Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, the freedom to be associated with a religious group does not make one ineligible for government benefits and thus upholds free association. Another landmark win for free expression took place in 2017 when Packingham v. North Carolina struck down the statute that prohibited sex offenders from accessing social media. In Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, tax breaks and grants were further allowed to be given to churches and other religious organizations. Furthermore, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission established that discrimination laws do not apply to organizations’ selections of religious leaders. In 2012 notably, United States v. Alvarez struck down exceptions to the First Amendment relating to stolen valor.
The trend through the 2010s shows an increasingly broad look on rights. By denying restrictions on churches, free assembly, artistic freedom, etc., we strengthen the values of dissent and discourse that allow our country to thrive.
However, outside of the Supreme Court the First Amendment has fared worse. Former President Barack Obama actively encouraged IRS action against conservative nonprofit organizations. In 2013, journalists protested the exclusion of press photographers from news events and criticized the first amendment case of Citizens United. That’s not to say that our current president has done any better. President Trump frequently bashes the media as fake news and wants to change libel laws. Also, our students are increasingly hostile to freedom of speech. According to a Brookings Institution poll, 40% of students believe the Constitution does not protect “hate speech.” Nineteen percent of students said that physical violence is an acceptable way to deal with offensive speech, and 50% of students said the appropriate response to speech they disagree with is to shut it down.
Overall, while the First Amendment is increasingly being upheld by higher courts, the culture and political will upholding expression has weakened and needs to be bolstered.
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Isadore Johnson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.