The World According to Nick
My take on Software, Technology, Politics, and anything else I feel like talking about.
Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Sands of Time 

Congress is once again looking into "protecting freedom of speech" for bloggers. The House tried to pass a law which would exempt the Internet from the McCain-Feingold Freedom of Speech Elimination Campaign Finance Reform law. But looking at this latest law, I find that I can only ashamed of our Congress. Just the name makes me ashamed... the "Online Freedom of Speech Act". I have to ask, why do we need a law protecting any speech in the first place? If you read the 1st Amendment, you'll find that it is probably the simplest most eloquent piece of writing in the Constitution... or perhaps anywhere.

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.

Considering that this was written in the late 18th century, it is amazing that even today it is so easy to understand more than 200 years later. There is no wiggle room... nothing to interpret... it flat out say so right there. Congress shall make no law. Yet somehow over the years, Congress and the Supreme Court have inserted new meaning into that simple paragraph. They've justified it by saying that the founders really didn't mean for it to be that air tight. After all, that would be foolish wouldn't it... because that would mean that politicians couldn't mess with it. I wonder, does it ever enter into their minds that this is exactly what their intent was?

The Bill of Rights was written in such a way, and put in the Constitution specifically to prevent what has happened over the years. They wanted to remove certain topics of discourse from the whims of the legislature. Certain things were just too important to be left to a simple majority vote. But instead of saying that nothing could ever change, they added a provision to amend the Constitution. Its not like this is an impossible task either, since we've done it 27 times. However, instead of changing the Constitution, our government has generally taken the easy way out. Over time, and a small grain of sand at a time, they've gradually added new meaning where it never existed before. Of course each grain alone is harmless... but at the same time each grain of sand serves as justification for the next. And over time, those tiny grains have collected into a significant hill on top of the original document. In fact I don't think that those original words are even really visible, having long since been buried.

As I've read the opinions of certain lawyers in the blogosphere over the last several months talking about the last batch of Supreme Court nominees, I've come to realize how similar they are to Islamic clerics. When I say this, I am not saying that they're terrorists. However, the attitude among those whose job it is to interpret the Constitution is still similar to the attitude of those whose job it is to interpret the Qur'an. The Qur'an, like the Bible, and like the Constitution was written for the common person to read and understand. It is the framework for a system that is meant to govern our lives, and therefore was meant for those all of us to understand since we all have a stake in that understanding. Yet somehow, Constitutional experts, and theologians have decided that we the common man are somehow unable to read and properly understand what is said. So they have decided that they will make it their job to interpret it, and will simply tell us what it means.

In the beginning I'm sure everyone who thought that way meant well. But just like this ability to interpret such an important document has been abused by so many cleric in the Middle East, so too has that been done to our Constitution. An absolute freedom of speech has given way to proper times and places, or the inability to say certain things about certain people around election time, free speech "zones", and a myriad of other shameful ideas. Public use no longer actually means anything, and interstate commerce can be affected by things that never actually leave the state.

The path to the overall restriction of our rights that we're walking now is certainly been slow because we've taken tiny steps. But if the destination is the same, does it matter whether we got there through many small steps, or a few giant leaps? The demands among so many are to have someone nominated to the court who understands precedent and is willing to abide by it faithfully. But I can't help but think that those who are making that demand are the ones who set the precedent in the first place, and have the most stake in those precedents being maintained. They don't have a stake in it because of any one decision, but rather because of the simple power that they have in being able to make it, because it maintains their monopoly on interpretation. It is time to wipe the slate clean, and start over with the original words that all of us can still hopefully agree on.

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Name: Nick
Home: Wauwatosa, WI, United States

I'm a Software Consultant in the Milwaukee area. Among various geeky pursuits, I'm also an amateur triathlete, and enjoy rock climbing. I also like to think I'm a political pundit.


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