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The First Amendment Does Not Give Us Freedom of Speech

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A special insert in Sunday’s New York Times reflects that it’s not just people in countries run by totalitarian regimes that are indoctrinated by the state. It also happens in representative democracies like the United States, especially owing to the government’s educational system.

The insert, which consisted of a variety of articles on different subjects, was oriented toward children. One article was entitled “What’s the Deal with North Korea?” and summarized the decades-long dispute between North Korea and the United States.

The article tells children that Americans are far freer than South Koreans are. It points out, for example, that North Koreans go to jail for criticizing their ruler, Kim Jong-un, while Americans are free to criticize their political leaders.

Here is where U.S. indoctrination come into play. The author of the piece, Elise Craig, writes:

The First Amendment gives Americans the right to be critical of elected leaders without punishment.

That statement is engrained in every single American from the time he enters the first grade and, unfortunately, produces a mindset that continues through adulthood.

Unfortunately, it just isn’t true.

Many years ago, I was delivering a lecture to a large group of students at a high school here in Northern Virginia, which has one of the best public-schooling systems in the country.

I was talking to them about the U.S. Constitution. During my talk, I told them that contrary to what they might have been taught, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights did not give them freedom of speech.

There was an immediate reaction from the crowd. I could tell they were visibly upset. I interrupted my talk and asked, “So, what’s going on?”

Immediately, they excitedly exclaimed to me that I was absolutely wrong. They said exactly what Elise Criag wrote in her article — that the First Amendment does in fact give Americans freedom of speech.

I stood my ground. I said, “No it doesn’t.” They continued reviling me.

When the hubbub died down, I asked, “Can anyone explain to his fellow students why I am right and they are wrong?”

Silence, for about 3 minutes. Finally, a girl raised her hand and said, “Because people’s rights don’t come from the Constitution. They come from God.”

Mere semantics? Absolutely not! The difference between those two mindsets is the difference between night and day.

Assume that the New York Times is right — that people’s rights come from the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights. That implies, of course, that it is the federal government that has given people their rights. If the government is the grantor of these rights, then it follows that it is the legitimate prerogative of the government to regulate, control, limit, or even take back such rights.

Thus, if one believes that rights come from the government, he is unable to condemn the North Korean regime at a fundamental level. His mindset precludes it from teaching children that it is morally wrong for any government to control or abridge speech. Instead, his mindset leaves him relegated to merely suggesting that our rulers are nicer than North Korean rulers because our rulers permit Americans to be freer.

But rights don’t involve governmental permission. It is government-granted privileges that involve permission.

Our American ancestors understood the nature of rights. They knew that people’s rights come from Nature and God, not from government, as Thomas Jefferson observed in the Declaration of Independence. They understood that rights preexist government.

Read the First Amendment. It is carefully crafted. Notice that it expressly prohibits Congress (and, implicitly, the entire federal government) from abridging people’s freedom of speech. That is entirely different from granting people freedom of speech.

Why did our American ancestors insist on the enactment of constitutional amendments that expressly prohibit our very own federal government from abridging our rights? Because they knew that our very own federal government, including our elected representatives in Congress, would inevitably try to do the things that North Korean rulers do to their citizens, including limiting or destroying their natural and God-given right of freedom of speech. That’s because our ancestors believed that the biggest threat to people’s freedom everywhere lay with their very own government, not just in North Korea but also here in the United States and everywhere else.

Unfortunately, today the situation is entirely different. Many Americans today view the federal government not as a grave threat to their freedom but rather as their friend, benefactor, and parent, one that provides them with their retirement, healthcare, and education, and protects them from North Korea (and communists, terrorists, Muslims, illegal immigrants, drug dealers, ISIS, Syria, Iran, Cuba, and other scary things).

In fact, that is precisely why many Americans are convinced they are a free people, not just because they are permitted to criticize their rulers but also because the federal government takes care of them and watches over them. In the process, they fail to see that North Korean rulers also provide their citizens with retirement, healthcare, education, and even guaranteed employment and protects them from the United States.

Americans might well be far less free than North Koreans, as reflected by the words of Johann Goethe:  “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” Needless to say, that quote was not included in the New York Times Sunday insert for children.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.