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News Link • General Opinion

Who Cares What the Government Thinks?

• By Andrew P. Napolitano

In 1791, when Congressman James Madison was drafting the first 10 amendments to the Constitution — which would become known as Bill of Rights — he insisted that the most prominent amendment among them restrain the government from interfering with the freedom of speech. After various versions of the First Amendment had been drafted and debated, the committee that he chaired settled on the iconic language: "Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech."

Madison insisted upon referring to speech as the freedom of speech, not for linguistic or stylistic reasons, but to reflect its pre-political existence. Stated differently, according to Madison — who drafted the Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights — because the freedom of speech pre-existed the government, it does not have its origins in government. The use of the article the reflects that pre-existence.

The First Amendment also reflects the framers' collective belief that the freedom of speech is a natural right. It has its origins in our human nature. We all yearn to speak free from restraint, and we all understand that we can use our speech to express any idea we want to express without fear or hesitation. Those yearnings and understandings are universal — hence, natural.

The framers wrote the First Amendment to codify negative rights. That is, the First Amendment recognizes the existence of the freedom of speech for every person, and it negates the ability and the power of Congress — after the Civil War amendments, of all governments — to infringe upon it. The First Amendment does not command Congress to grant the freedom of speech (it is not Congress' to grant); rather, it commands that Congress shall not interfere with it.

Nearly all of the rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights are negative rights. Their essence is not a grant of liberty. Their essence is a restraint on the government from interfering with pre-existing liberty.

I offer this brief understanding of the freedom of speech in our constitutional form of government as an introduction to a discussion of the dangers of government exercising free speech. We know from the plain language in and the history of the First Amendment that all persons have the freedom of speech. But what about the government? Does government have the freedom of speech?

That is not an academic question. The short answer to it is: Under the theory of the Declaration of Independence — that our rights come to us from the Creator and are inalienable — and consistent with Madison's understanding, the government has no freedom of speech. Government only can exercise the powers we have given it. Nowhere in the Constitution did the states give such powers to the feds, and nowhere did the people give such powers to the states. We don't elect government to identify ideas it loves or hates. We elect it to protect our freedoms.

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