By David Eacho, VI Form
In 1789, fed up with complaints from anti-federalists claiming that the brand new Constitution would strip all the rights and freedoms away from men, James Madison wrote a Bill of Rights: a series of Ten Constitutional Amendments that would protect all Americans from the potential tyranny of the government. While some of these rights do not seem useful in a modern day context, such as the Third Amendment right to refuse to give a soldier a bed in your home, or the Tenth Amendment, which merely delegates powers to the States, knowledge of your rights as an American citizen is crucial to the success of our society.
Many people know they have the right to free speech under the First Amendment; what they do not realize is that surrounding the text guaranteeing that right also includes the freedom to assemble peaceably, freedom of the press, freedom to establish and/or practice any religion, and freedom to protest any government action without fear of punishment. Despite these freedoms prescribed by the Constitution, the First Amendment is not absolute. Many people are found guilty of crimes pertaining solely to their spoken word. Others have been arrested for religious practices. There are eight major exceptions to the freedom of speech according to laws held by federal courts: advocacy of the use of force, false statements of fact, obscenity, child pornography, offensive speech, threats, plagiarism, and commercial speech. One cannot shout “Fire!” in a crowded movie theatre, nor can someone incite a riot or other violence. The Supreme Court has limited the rights given by the Ten Amendments, and can continue to do so.
Beyond the rights given by the First Amendment, it is important to realize how rights provided to you that protect against police and government interference and overreaching. For example, the Fourth Amendment states:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The protections offered by this amendment are not foolproof, and this is one of the most contested amendments in the Constitution. For instance, the Fourth Amendment does not protect your dorm rooms from school searches, nor does it prevent oversight and investigation into your internet searches. It does, however, allow you to refuse entry to an officer at your home’s doorstep. For instance, you are having a party and your neighbors call in a noise complaint. Unless the responding officer sees something illegal occurring in your doorway or has a reasonable suspicion that something illegal is occurring within your home, he cannot enter your house without a warrant. Assuming you are polite with the officer and turn down your music, you will not have any trouble. The Fourth Amendment also applies to cars. Drivers have fewer rights when it comes to searches as the evidence can be moved much more quickly than evidence in a house. While you do have the right to privacy within your car, if an officer has reason to be suspicious of you, he can force you out of your vehicle and keep you stranded on the side of the road for hours while he requests a warrant. Privacy is something that the Constitution and the Supreme Court have taken very seriously, and it is important to know its bounds.
The Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution all relate to the rights of the arrested. The framers of the Constitution intended to ensure that our country treated everyone equally and that no one was to be treated guilty of a crime until proven innocent. The Bill of Rights secured many important liberties to make sure alleged criminals are treated fairly. Because of the Supreme Court case Miranda v. Arizona, anyone arrested must be read the Miranda rights, a series of four statements designed to inform the arrestee of their right to remain silent and their right to an attorney. Included as well are the facts that anything the suspect does can and will be used against them in a court of law and that an attorney will be appointed if they cannot afford one. When they are tried, according to the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, they will be informed of their charges, and tried by an impartial jury. The Eighth Amendment then secures that their punishment, as decided by a judge, will not be unfair.
Living in America can be a great thing, but even a country founded on equality and freedom can have its rules. It is important to know the boundaries of the freedoms given by our government. The First Amendment cannot save you if you make lewd comments at school, nor can the Fourth Amendment protect the locked-drawer in your dresser. That said, a police officer cannot enter any house he sees looking for illicit drugs or weapons, nor can the government stop you from advocating for marijuana legalization. America was founded as a nation against government oppression, and for the freedom of its citizens, and the first step to exercising the freedom is to know its bounds.
David Walker Eacho is a VI Former from Bethesda, MD who lives in Maple House. He has been studying Constitutional law in the second semester with Mrs. Jeniene Matthews of the English Department, focusing on the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, with research into the rest of the Bill of Rights.