First Amendment: What does it really say?

first amendment


Separation of Church and State. Hate speech. Media freedom. Campaign finance. Cancel speeches due to threats. Supporters claim that the first amendment defends all of these actions. The founders were specific and passionate about the first amendment. Let’s look at the text.

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.

  • “Congress shall make no law” is the opening phrase. It doesn’t say that Congress shall make some laws. It doesn’t say that Congress shall make a lot of laws. It says Congress shall make no laws.
  • “Respecting an establishment of religion” means that Congress will not establish a national religion. The founders were aware of the Episcopal church, the Church of England. The King was the national and the spiritual leader. The Puritans left England because of this restriction on their worship.

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court introduced the phrase “separation of Church and State” to our lexicon. The phrase was taken from a Thomas Jefferson letter to the Danbury Baptist church. James Madison was the author of the Bill of Rights, not Jefferson. Here is an excerpt from his letter.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

The wall was intended to separate the government from the Church and not to separate the church from the government.  Madison was clear about the intentions in the phrase that Congress shall not establish a religion.

  • “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” – Congress is prohibited from restricting the free exercise of religion. Restricting churches from involvement in politics is a violation of this clause. Christianity is about aligning our thoughts and ways with God’s thoughts and ways.
  • “or abridging the freedom of speech” – Hateful, offensive speech is covered under this clause. The majority cannot shut down disagreeable speech. Threats are not protected by this phrase.
  • “or [the freedom] of the press” – The fourth estate (media) are given special rights and protections. Due to the internet, cable TV, and mobile devices there are more media choices providing real-time reporting than any time in history.
  • “or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – The right to peaceful protest is one of our unique privileges. Disrupting traffic, blocking access, and violent protests are not protected. Censorship is not the solution. The only appropriate way to confront disagreeable speech is more free speech. Present your counter argument and let the listeners decide.


The right to petition the government for a remedy for your grievances is primarily through the court systems or by addressing elected officials.


The first amendment is the foundation for all of the other amendments. It’s important to know what it says instead of what others tell you that it means. The first amendment gives me the right to publish this blog and for you to read it.




Undue Political Influence


Privately held Koch Industries generates enough profit to elevate Charles and David Koch, sons of the founder, to the top 10 wealthiest in America. Most billionaires give back a portion of their wealth to charities and non-profits through foundations. Warren Buffet, number 2 on the list, directs his charitable giving to the titular foundation of number one on the list – Bill Gates.

The Koch brothers have multiple foundations focused on the public good. However, their political contributions generate the most discussion and controversy. Their fundraising success will soon dwarf both the Republican and Democrat National Committees, the RNC and DNC respectively. In 2012, their fundraising group raised $400M for conservative candidates. The RNC and DNC each spent about $650M. Mostly dark money to non-profit organizations which spend no more than 50% of their budget on political influence. Why dark money? Dark money donors are anonymous, unlike the Super Pacs which require disclosure of all donors and amount contributed. Due to this loophole, a small group of people can have a massive influence on political speech and remain in the shadows, that’s why it’s called dark money.

The Koch’s influence will more than double for 2016. They lead a group of over 300 donors which will amass almost $900M for this year’s election season.

The democrats want to overturn Citizens United because it allows corporations to contribute money to Super Pacs. My greater concern is the cover provided for Dark Money donors. I believe that all donors to Super Pacs and Dark Money organizations should undergo the same transparency.

The Koch brothers have turned political donations into an art form which is permitted by the 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.

The first five words of the first amendment, “Congress shall make no law”, are emphatic. It doesn’t say that Congress will make “some laws” or “most laws”, but “no law”. Also, notice that “no law” is singular, which means not a  single one. It doesn’t empower the Executive or Judicial branch to impose their interpretation either.

Political speech is under the heading of freedom of speech. The problem with restricting political speech is that it will always favor the incumbent or a candidate with name recognition.

I support two laws to reduce political corruption: term limits and dark money donor transparency.

Update: The Koch’s announced that they will not fund any pro-Trump or anti-Hillary ads this year.