CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – December 15 heralds the 222nd anniversary of the ratification of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, traditionally recognized as the Bill of Rights. Due to the days significance in United States history, Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed it a national holiday on August 21, 1941—150 years after they were initially ratified and nine days before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Since then, the Bill of Rights Day has largely been lost to the annals of time and if not completely forgotten, at least not significant enough to warrant a wikipedia article.
In honor of this somewhat forgotten, but no less appreciated day, here is a refresher course on the amendments that pertain most to the current policies influencing the United States.
The First Amendment gives citizens the freedom of religion, speech and the press, as well as the rights of assembly and petition. This law allows Americans to openly dissent with the government and rally in the streets if they so wish (with the appropriate permit of course). Countries without key features of the first amendment, notably freedom of speech, include North Korea, China and Eritrea. All three rigidly control their media and public; China recently imprisoned artist Ai Weiwei in 2011 for 81 days in a private facility for speaking out against the government, Eritrea has zero private media outlets and, according to the Korean Central News Agency, North Korea has no crime, poverty or famine. It is interesting to note that a majority of the migrants killed in the Oct. 3 tragedy at Lampedusa were Eritrean.
The Second Amendment allows citizens to keep and bear arms. Created in a time when local militias were typical and civil war loomed large, owning your own gun was to be expected. Currently, the right to bear arms remains in question following numerous mass shootings, notably the Elementary school shooting in Newtown, CN last year. Despite initially strong support for gun reform, including stricter background checks, gun laws remain the same across the country without much sign of change.
The Fourth Amendment disallows searches and seizures without proper warrants and probable cause. The 2001 passage of the Patriot Act expanded upon exceptions to this amendment, most noticeably when it comes to collecting information and having probable cause as well as a warrant before there being a search. Additionally, the NSA has recently come under scrutiny for collecting records of phone conversations, especially among foreign heads of state, in such a manner that violates the Fourth Amendments prerequisite of “giving notice” before executing a search.
The Fifth Amendment marks one of the more recognizable and more easily remembered amendments, due in part to pop culture references. Under this amendment, no person can be charged twice with the same crime, and no one may be imprisoned without due process of law. Guantanamo’s existence may have put into question how “due process of law” was applied to its detainees, but efforts by President Obama to shut down the facility have been met by stiff refusal from Congress.
The Sixth Amendment upholds a defendant’s right to a fair trial. As Americans, it’s easy to take for granted our right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury, where we are informed of our crime and are allowed to defend ourselves, with our without the help of witnesses and legal counsel.
Finally, the Eighth Amendment pertains to the bails, fines and punishments of defendants in a trial. The amendment restricts excessive bail and fines shall not be imposed, nor shall any cruel and unusual punishments be inflicted.
– Emily Bajet
Sources: The American Presidency Project, The Bill of Rights Institute, The White House: Bill of Rights Day 2012, The White House: Bill of Rights Day 2011, First Amendment Center, 1 Amendment for All, History Chanel, Committee to Protect Journalists, New York Times, Human Rights Watch, American Civil Liberties Union
Photo: First Street Confidential