Sunday, February 28, 2016

Bill of Rights, Part I - The First Five

The Bill of Rights

Many of our Founding Fathers did not believe that their new Constitution of the United States gave Americans enough protection from the new federal government. In 1791, a group of ten amendments were added to the Constitution. Collectively, these are known as the Bill of Rights. Most of these amendments specify and guarantee additional rights for Americans.

The reasons for this distrust were rooted in the endless stream of lies, double-dealing, corruption and just plain, criminal activity of the European governments of the day. Any attempt to bring this festering mess to light could result in a persons persecution, prosecution or summary execution. One case known to all Americans of the Eighteenth Century was the trial of John Peter Zenger, the publisher of the New York Weekly Journal. Simply expressing disgust for any dishonorable or despicable act of the government could bring a jail sentence for sedition or libel.

Our Founding Fathers correctly reasoned that in order to keep any government honest, people must be able to discuss the actions of the government, especially when the actions were dishonest. This requires not only the freedom to speak out but also the freedom to publish about these actions. These freedoms would be meaningless, unless the government was also prevented from retaliating against those who speak out.

Governments around the world have not changed much. According to WikiPedia:

In Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and Poland it is illegal to insult foreign heads of state publicly.
  • On 5 January 2005, Marxist tabloid publisher Jerzy Urban was sentenced by a Polish court to a fine of 20,000 złoty (about €5000, UK£3384 or US$6,200) for having insulted Pope John Paul II, a visiting head of state.
...
[In the Netherlands,] For insulting the king, the heiress apparent, and their relatives, an offender may receive up to five years imprisonment plus a fine.
  • In October 2007, a 47-year-old man was sentenced to one week imprisonment and fined €400[11] for, amongst other things, lèse-majesté in the Netherlands when he called Queen Beatrix a "whore" and told a police officer that he would have anal sex with her because "she would like it".

From the December 15, 2015 edition of the New York Times,

BANGKOK — Thailand’s strict laws making it a crime to insult the monarchy entered new territory on Monday when a factory worker was charged with disparaging the king’s dog.

In a case brought in a Thai military court, the worker, Thanakorn Siripaiboon, was charged with making a “sarcastic” Internet post related to the king’s pet. He also faces separate charges of sedition and insulting the king.

Mr. Thanakorn could face a total of 37 years in prison for his social media posts, ...

Citizen of other nations today can and are penalized by their government for speaking their mind while living in the United States. This is especially a problem for foreign college students and scholars and for American universities offering history and culture courses – think "Spanish Studies" or "German Studies" type of courses – required for political science degrees. India is currently offering a case in point.

Again, from India, a US government agency, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom was, with the support of the US Department of State, planning to visit India. This had been scheduled for quite a while, but India failed to provide the necessary visas. (Updated on 3/4/2016)

With these, and countless other examples found in history, in mind, the Bill of Rights was added to, and is still of paramount importance within, the Constitution.

Amendment I

When the American colonies were founded, religious persecution was rife in Europe. Many colonists came to this continent looking for a place to worship God in their preferred way. In the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, the heavy hand to the British monarchy induced fear on those who disagreed with royal actions. From this, sprang:

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.

First, concerning religion — there is to be no "official" state religion. Everyone is to be able to worship God as they see fit. Our Founding Fathers presumed that God exists and we should worship God in some way.

Second, we have the right to discuss the actions of, and disagree with the policies of, our government in private conversation, in published writings, or from the lectern of a church or assembly hall. We also have the right to complain to our government and ask that it change its ways.

Amendment II

In the Declaration of Independence, our Founding Fathers declared:

That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

These words are a powder keg waiting to explode! Governments, by their very nature, attempt to increase their power and to act in self-preservation. To protect ourselves and our individual states from external threats, whether from outsiders or from our own Federal Government, each state must have the right to establish and maintain a state militia. Currently, this function has been subsumed into the National Guard. State militias and the National Guard are both under the command of each state's governor, except in time of war. Thus, the Second Amendment:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Militias are made up of local volunteers, originally set up by towns and villages to protect the townspeople from raiders. They also have to react quickly – natural disasters and foreign adversaries strike quickly and with little or no warning. Training is also of vital importance. However, for good or for ill, it is the weapon that keeps the peace in time of crisis – thus, the right to keep and carry weapons. Criminals and foreign adversaries will not care about our laws controlling weapons and will use these laws to their advantage. We the People must have the right to level the battlefield.

Amendment III

In the mid- to late-Eighteenth Century, when the British troops occupied the American colonies, the British government often forced local citizens to host, at their own cost, these soldiers – especially the officers – in their homes, taverns and inns. The locals resented the practice, but had no voice in the matter. From this was born the Third Amendment:

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

Governments around the world have a long history of confiscating the property and possessions of dissenters as a form of retribution for disagreeing with the government or its policies or of alleged criminals, especially political criminals, to render them financially unable to mount a vigorous legal defense. Sometimes property, such as grand houses and estates, were confiscated for the "convenience" of the government, or to satisfy the greed of a government functionary, to become an "official residences." As you can imagine, this practice was strongly resented, leading to the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

Governments around the world, both then and now, have long been known to arrest people and charge them with crimes that they did not commit. Sometimes this is due to malice, sometimes because the police have no other suspect, and sometimes just to arrest someone – anyone – to alleviate the political heat caused by the crime. Under some governments, as this story from North Korea shows, people are arrested and forced to confess in a very public way in an attempt to force foreign policy concessions from other nations. These practices lead to the Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The last clause is still contentious. Laws have been passed in this country which allow private property, allegedly purchased by money gained illegally, to be seized and auctioned by the government without first convicting the owner of any illegal activity. The owner does not receive the money from the sale; it goes to the state treasury. These laws were passed to penalize organized crime and drug traffickers. However, as much as I detest criminal activity, I do not believe these laws pass Constitutional muster and should be challenged in the Federal courts.

Next: Part II, the Second Five Amendments

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