The Bill of Rights in a Modern, Digital World

Old US Constitution zoomed in on "We the People"

At the time of its framing, some believed the Constitution was incomplete without a set of human rights protections.
(Image credit: Bigstock/Pamela Au)

The addition of a Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution was actually a fairly unpopular idea at the time of its framing. Even James Madison, its chief architect, was opposed to the idea. In fact, Madison didn't even take the idea seriously until Thomas Jefferson managed to convince him that a Bill of Rights was necessary. Since there were many who believed the Constitution was incomplete without a set of human rights protections, the thinking was that a Bill of Rights would satisfy those early critics.

On September 25, 1789, Congress approved twelve articles of amendment to the Constitution. Ten of the articles were ratified as additions to the Constitution on December 15, 1791; one of the articles wasn't ratified until 1992; and the last article remains pending before the states. The Bill of Rights is essentially an extension of the rights of the individual defined in the Constitution, while restricting the rights of the federal government. The first ten amendments were inspired by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, as well as some political philosophies originating in England, such as the English Bill of Rights and the Magna Carta Libertatum.

Three Amendments Under Attack

The Bill of Rights contains ten amendments, and certain interests are actively trying to curtail at least three of them in recent years. Calls for limiting the scope of these particular amendments are increasing on a daily basis. By many measures, the United States is still one of the most freedom-friendly countries on the planet. If these interests are successful in narrowing the scope of these three amendments for the benefit of the "common good," it's important to remember that the reasons these amendments were created in the first place won't be erased by a simple majority vote. We must, therefore, be very careful when entertaining the idea of changing or abolishing them. Laws and ethical codes must evolve and adapt to the common enlightenment of the people, but perhaps we aren't as enlightened as we might think we are and just maybe the world isn't quite so different today than it was 300 years ago, regardless of how certain groups want to vehemently convince everyone that it is.

Freedom of speech is one of the defining rights of the United States and one of the rights provided by the First Amendment. As such, the First Amendment protects citizens from the censorship of the government except in cases of speech that is false or incites sedition against the government or harm against citizens. Freedom of the press is also included in the First Amendment, and while this once applied only to printed documents, in the digital age it applies to documents in both print and electronic form. There is an enormous debate going on right now about the freedom of speech and freedom of the press thanks to technology and social media. Should people be allowed to express their ideas, criticisms, conspiracy theories and even fake news online, even if some of this speech is considered to be offensive, hurtful or just plain untrue? According to the United States Constitution, the government can't do much about it unless some very specific requirements are met.

Corporate Censorship

Private companies, on the other hand, are taking bold action against views and opinions they don't agree with. The general feeling is that if a private company owns the digital platform, then they have a right to censor anyone for any reason at anytime. The government can't make this kind of activity illegal, in the same way it can't stop people from expressing themselves. Up until the 2016 election, most social media giants seemed to follow an unwritten rule that people don't like censorship, and so social media platforms exercised their prerogative to delete "unpopular" ideas sparingly. However, this is no longer the case. Social media giants are now blatantly promoting voices they agree with, and are outright banning those they don't. This raises an interesting question, especially since these Silicon Valley giants have created a virtual monopoly. Where are opposition voices supposed to go?

It should be obvious that the First Amendment was put in place because the founders lived in a time when censorship was commonplace. Going as far back as ancient times, people were generally never allowed to criticize their rulers. At best, a person could be exiled. At worst, he or she would be executed. The Roman Catholic Church, for almost 1,000 years, stunted Europe's intellectual advancement thanks to policies like the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or List of Forbidden Books. John Milton, in his Areopagitica, argued that not only did censorship take away a person's right to express his or her ideas, but it also deprived an audience from hearing those ideas, which is equally as bad. If these examples are perceived to be too far removed historically to be relevant to the modern reader, then all one has to do is look at the Nazi book burnings of less than 100 years ago or the fact that Mao Zedong instituted a ban on books by Aristotle, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens in Communist China, to realize that if the people consent to being censored, then the government will be only too happy to oblige.

Making America Weak

At one time, you could starve a bully by not giving him any attention. The famous axiom, "sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me" worked to empower countless generations against verbally-abusive cowards. Today, the automatic response to some demeaning or humiliating remark is to immediately become offended and figure out a way to "ban" bullies. It's interesting to note that "hate speech" is, in fact, supported by the First Amendment. European countries, particularly those hit hardest during World War II, worked diligently to make "hate speech" illegal, but the United States currently has no such provisions against it. While speech that's considered to be hateful has no place in a civilized society, some have argued that the concept of "hate speech" actually creates a kind of protected class of people who are immune from any kind of criticism. Ask yourself this: should an enlightened society have a protected class of people who aren't allowed to be criticized, even when their actions merit condemnation?

The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to keep and bear arms. The goal of this amendment is to allow people to protect their property and their rights from criminals, tyrannical governments and invaders. One of the reasons why the United States has never been invaded by a foreign adversary is because the citizenry is so heavily armed. When you take away that right, the people--and indeed the country--are left vulnerable. Machiavelli argued in The Prince that an inherent trust is established between the king and a well-armed populace. Likewise, if a king decides to remove the public's access to weapons, distrust is thus created between both the king and the people. In other words, the king doesn't trust the people to have weapons, and so the people no longer trust the king. Machiavelli saw the mutual distrust between the ruler and his people as being ultimately destabilizing to any principality.

Today, with a huge surge in gun violence and mass shootings, the calls to outright repeal the Second Amendment are getting louder. A disarmed, weak, impotent and vulnerable public represents the ideal populace for a tyrant to assume his dominion over, and for some reason, the gun control advocates can't seem to get this through their heads. Yes, in a perfect world, there would be no guns or other weapons because we would all get along and no one would ever need to protect or defend themselves. However, this is far from a perfect world, and simply taking away the tools of savagery will not make humans any less savage.

"...Shall not be Infringed"

Most everyone can agree that certain people should not own guns. For example, the mentally ill, criminals and others who have failed background checks present dangers to themselves and others when in possession of a firearm. However, the public must expand its thinking when trying to explore solutions to the gun violence problem. Do video games help to desensitize young children to gun violence? Has the secularization of American public schools led to an overly atheistic and nihilistic society that holds little regard for human life, or life in general? What role does pharmaceutical medications and prescription drugs play in mass shootings? Could mind-controlled "robot assassins" account for some of the horrific mass shootings, and if you consider this suggestion to be pure science fiction, how can the case of Sirhan Sirhan be explained? Could some rogue elements within government agencies be orchestrating some of these shootings as part of an engineered psy-op against the unsuspecting masses?

Stars and stripes of the waving American flag

America was founded upon principles of individual liberty and free markets. Today, attitudes are changing towards socialist collectivism with tighter government regulations on the economy and more people dependant on government programs.
(Image credit: klikk)

The Fourth Amendment prevents the government from illegal searches and seizures. Typically, private property can only be searched with a warrant or if there is probable cause. In the case of a vehicle, probable cause is usually established when something illegal is found to be in plain view. Once again, the expansion of social media, smart phones and the "Internet of Things" encourages privacy to take a backseat to convenience. As evidenced by the Edward Snowden revelations, privacy is an oxymoron in the digital age. Everything is recorded and nothing is safe from prying eyes. Probable cause is largely outdated because police can obtain much of the information they need through digital files already shared with a third-party corporation. It should be expected that corporations will continue to share your personal and private information with the various advertisers and government bodies who ask for it. As things stand now, the only thing you can do is limit the amount of information you share with others online, but if there is any truth to rumors about the government monitoring the types of books you buy online, for example, then there isn't much you can do except for turning your back on the Internet entirely, which doesn't seem realistic.

Think logically about the issues raised here. Consider the historical facts and never underestimate the desire of would-be despots to utterly control and dominate your life. Keep an eye out for obvious propaganda and don't believe everything you read, see and hear. Stop agreeing with the mob and start thinking for yourself. Ultimately, the common thread throughout all of these issues is consent. If the people consent to being censored, disarmed, and spied on, then it is so decreed.