In Search of the First Amendment

Over the years we’ve all heard every manner of reference to the Bill of Rights, notably the First (the right to free speech) and Second (the right to bear arms) Amendments. Indeed, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people—professionals and amateurs—remind us that we can’t shout “Fire!” in crowded theater.

Not that I’m an expert on the U.S. Constitution, but as the former editor of a labor union newspaper who was once threatened with a lawsuit by a disgruntled union member claiming we had violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to publish a political essay he had written, I like to think I’m fluent.

Of course, being “threatened with a lawsuit,” is close to meaningless, particularly in California. In my Dad’s day, men would threaten to punch you in the nose (“You want to go outside and settle this?”). In my day, they threatened to sue you. Although lawsuits are still in vogue, and threats of violence now involve guns (“I’m going to blow your fucking head off”), people today seem nicer. They threaten to “un-friend” you on Facebook.

At issue was what this person saw as a bedrock Constitutional guarantee. He claimed to have the unassailable right to express a political opinion without having it edited or censored, even if that opinion happened to contradict the views of what he referred to as “the Establishment.” In short, he insisted on having his scabrous anti-labor polemic published in a union newspaper.

I refused to run the piece. While my first impulse was to threaten to blow his fucking head off, I urged him to take a moment to think about it. A union is no more compelled to publish the views of an anti-union member than the Catholic church is obligated to publish the views of an atheist. Surely, he could see that. He responded by quoting the First Amendment. Only he left out parts of it. In fact, all he could recall was that he was somehow guaranteed the right to political free speech.

This is the entire First Amendment: “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.” So unless I was Congress, and was set on passing some law, the issue before us wasn’t a First Amendment issue.

But because I was new in the job of editor, and didn’t want to do anything that put the union in jeopardy, I consulted a labor lawyer to make sure I was on solid ground. He told me I was. He assured me that this fellow had absolutely no grounds for insisting we run his piece.

However, he did raise another issue. He noted that because our by-laws were so wildly democratic, if this guy came to the Hall and demanded that our newspaper print all articles submitted to it, and they took a vote and the vote carried, we would have to comply. After all, the paper’s expenses were underwritten by our members. The membership “owned” the paper.

Our story has a happy ending. I looked up this guy and told him what I had found out. I told him he could come down to the union hall and put the issue to a vote. I also promised him that if the vote carried, the newspaper staff, beginning with me, would resign. That was no idle threat; it was a fact. None of us had any interest in moderating some stupid debate about the efficacy of the American Labor Movement.

He not only instantly understood what I was saying, he sheepishly confessed to having submitted the piece in the spirit of a Devil’s Advocate, with the goal of intentionally (in his words) “stirring the pot.” He assured me that he was not anti-union. It ended with us shaking hands.

While I haven’t stayed in touch with this guy, people I have stayed in touch with still talk to him. Apparently, he has gone around telling everyone that he had proudly voted for Donald Trump. If he did so in order to “stir the pot,” he’s more of an ass than I thought he was.

More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South