Less cryptically, the first and main question that I shall explore . . . is whether [the First] Amendment is genuinely first — first in fact, first in law, and first in the hearts of Americans. In the process of exploring this question, I also hope to shed some light on the meaning of this amendment in particular and the nature of constitutional interpretation in general. – Akhil Amar
Akhil Amar, the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, is well known in the worlds of constitutional law and history. His six books include The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (1998) and America’s Unwritten Constitutions: The Precedents & Principles We Live By (2012). Among Professor Amar’s many honors is his 2012 National Archives dialogue with Justice Clarence Thomas. More recently, he has returned to his study of constitutional history by way of a new scholarly essay.
The essay is entitled “The First Amendment’s Firstness,” which appears in the UC Davis Law Review. The work derives from the Central Valley Foundation/James B. McClatchy lecture on the First Amendment, which Amar delivered on October 16, 2013 at the University of California at Davis Law School (see video of lecture here). Below I summarize the Essay by a series of questions and answers based on the author’s observations and conclusions.
Question: “Do the actual words ‘the First Amendment’ or ‘Amendment I’ themselves appear in what we all unselfconsciously refer to as ‘the First Amendment?’”
Answer: No. The answer has to do with what is known as the “correct copy” of the Constitution.
Question: What, then, was the official (“correct”) name of what we now call the First Amendment?
Answer: The official title was “Article the Third” — no “First” and no “Amendment.” In this regard, what is crucial is the text that was first submitted to and then ratified by the states, which is not the same as the commonplace copy contained in all our books and those pocket-size constitutions some carry with Hugo Black-like pride.
Question: In terms of their importance, how significant is the ordering of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights?
Answer: Not significant at all. Says Amar: “the ultimate textual ordering of the first set of amendments was a remarkably random thing.” Moreover, he adds: “the initial ordering of the proposed amendments in the First Congress had little to do with their intrinsic importance or relative rank. Rather, the amendments were originally sequenced in the First Congress so as to track the textual order of the original Constitution. Thus an amendment modifying congressional size came first, because that issue appeared first in the original Constitution . . . .”
Question: “who says that the official text of the Constitution must govern for all purposes — even for all legal purposes”?
Answer: Here is how Amar answers his question: “The brute fact that millions of copies of the U.S. Constitution . . . include the words ‘Amendment I’ or something closely approximating these words alongside the amendment’s meat — ‘Congress shall make no law . . .’ — should arguably suffice for us to treat these technically unratified words as if they had indeed been formally voted upon in 1789–91.”
Question: Does the fact that the Reconstruction Amendments were officially captioned “XIII,” “XIV,” and “XV” have any constitutional significance with reference to the Bill of Rights?
Answer: Yes. “The Reconstruction Amendments invite/compel us to read the earlier amendments in a new way,” says Amar. In other words, at that pinpoint in ratification time “Article the Third” became “Amendment I.” Moreover, adds Amar, “a great deal of what we now think about ‘the Bill of Rights’. . . owes a greater debt to the vision of the Reconstruction generation than to the Founders’ world-view.”
In the process of answering these and other related questions, Professor Amar goes on to examine the First Amendment’s “firstness” by way of structural, historical, doctrinal, and cultural considerations. Having done so, he raises a more fundamental question:
Might the very strength of the amendment today, its very firstness, be grounds for concern? Precisely because we all love the First Amendment — because it truly is first in our text and first in our hearts — is there a danger that all sorts of less deserving ideas and principles will cleverly try to camouflage themselves as First Amendment ideas when they are really wolves in sheep’s clothing?
Against that backdrop, he questions the First Amendment validity of decisions affirming free speech rights related to alcohol and tobacco advertising, pornography, animal cruelty, and campaign finance. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of “the deeply democratic and egalitarian structure of this free-speech principle, properly construed” — though for Amar freedom of the press “is less intrinsically democratic.”
There is, of course, more to say about this thought-proving essay, which I urge you to read . . . even if some of its claims might raise your ideological eyebrows.
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