NPR had a segment this morning called "Misunderstanding the First Amendment", where it speaks directly to an issue that I think more people need to think about: what is the First Amendment. Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, makes the point that too many people (especially celebrities) are decrying the violation of their First Amendment rights when in fact, no such violation is going on.
The first Amendment is an amendment to the US Constitution, which is a document that dictates what the government can and cannot do to its people. In particular, it states:
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.
The Congress and the Government are not allowed to make laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech or the press.. etc. It says nothing about business establishments or individuals being required to listen to speech or agreeing with said speech, or anything of the sort.
Now, this doesn't mean that people aren't being censored by other people, their employers, or organizations to which they belong. However, that's not against the law in most cases, and it's certainly not against the constitution (unless their employer is the government, and even then it is a bit of a question when the government is acting as an employer).
"America's heart and soul is freedom of expression without fear of reprisal," said Whoopi Goldberg in a statement about her being fired as a spokesperson for Slimfast, due to anti-Bush remarks that she made. Unfortunately, she's missing the point completely. It isn't freedom from the fear of reprisal, it's the freedom to say it in the first place without the government throwing you in jail. In her case, a private corporation, not wanting to be involved in the political controversy, decided they needed a new spokesperson.
Michael Moore would also do well to bone up on his facts (something he seemed to use sparingly in his recent film, Farenheit 9/11). In a recent posting to his web site, Moore complained bitterly that Linda Ronstadt was removed from a casino in Las Vegas for a song dedication to the filmmaker. "What country do you live in? Last time I checked, Las Vegas is still in the United States. And in the United States, we have something called "The First Amendment." This constitutional right gives everyone here the right to say whatever they want to say. ", he wrote.
Linda had the right to say whatever she wanted to say. The casino can toss her out if they don't feel that it's serving their business purpose.
The First Amendment doesn't cover private actions, only actions by the government; and if the Moore and the Goldberg interpretations were to become the law of the land, this would be a country where nobody can be taken to task for incorrect facts and where a sponsor or employer couldn't control their mouthpieces.
The freedom of speech is a guarantee from the Constitution, and that freedom shall not be abridged by the government. However, the responsibility of individuals for their statements also should not be abridged by the government. If you work for somebody and don't agree with their policies, take a stand and expect to get fired. Or, fire yourself and find somebody more compatible with your own beliefs. After all, there should be some responsibility to go with this opportunity.