Monday, November 3, 2008

Our Politicians and the Constitution

I'm just going to go ahead and declare this as unassailably true - politicians, our elected legislators and executives who create and enforce the laws of our country, should know the Constitution. And I'm not talking about knowledge of the Constitution. For instance, it is not enough for a politician to say, "Oh yes, the Constitution! I have heard of that document. They tell me it is fantastic." No. This is not what I mean. Politicians should know the text - line by line, word by word - by memory. It should be ingrained in their hearts; its words should paper their bedroom and office walls (yes I used paper as a with it) - because it is the supreme Law of the Land.

So it both saddens and angers me when our leaders reveal a distinct ignorance of, arguably, the most important document in their lives. Let me preface the heart of my post by disclaiming that I am not picking on any one politician - especially Sarah Palin. I'm not highlighting any of these cases with the intent of mocking someone's intelligence. I am posting about this subject because it frightens me that politicians can get away with such dangerous ignorance. They create new laws! These laws are supposed to be in line with the Constitution. How could this be possible if those creating and ratifying these laws do not even understand the governing document? Anyway, let's get into it.

Some of you may have heard Ms. Palin's attack on the media. If not, here's the article, (it links to the ABC article). Ms. Palin points out that some media outlets are refusing to publish her comments about Barack Obama because those outlets deem the statements to be inflammatory and overly negative. Now, I'm not writing to discuss the merits of that claim - let's leave that to the talking heads. The important thing here, though, is that she argues that this refusal to publish violates her First Amendment freedom of speech rights, because her words are being unfairly singled out and will not be heard by the media's audience. This is nonsense. It informs us that Ms. Palin does not understand - or perhaps, may never have read - the First Amendment.

Let me dispatch with her argument quickly before I talk about the policy ramifications of her statement. First off, textually, the First Amendment prohibits only the Federal Government's passing of laws which abridge the freedom of speech ("Congress shall make no law"). This was later extended to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment. Thus, for the most part (with limited exceptions), private individuals can deprive you of your right to free speech. That's why students have a limited First Amendment right in class. That's why private businesses can control - to some extent - what their employees say. That's why I could tell you to be quiet. So, Ms. Palin's First Amendment rights are not violated by privately run media corporations because the First Amendment does not prohibit them from silencing her. But that brings us to the next point...they aren't silencing her! She can still say whatever she darn well pleases. I guess her argument is that, because enough media outlets are refusing to publish her statements, they are keeping a large audience from hearing her thoughts and expressions. There would be some bite to this argument if the media were State-run. Of course, we're not North Korea and media outlets are private. But even if that were not true, Ms. Palin would still have her work cut out for her in court. Why? Because the First Amendment - and this is important to understand - does not create a private right to an audience. We have the right to express ourselves. We do not have a right to have our expressions recognized or even heard by anyone. In fact, in some cases we have the right to be free from hearing certain types of speech (loud campaigning from "sound trucks," for instance). So, Ms. Palin is on no solid ground whatsoever when she makes her case.

So why even bother with this post? Isn't this the type of "gaffe" we promised we wouldn't discuss in our introductory post? I don't believe that it is. This is more than a mere "misinterpretation." Her comments reveal an utter lack of knowledge of Constitutional scholarship. This is dangerous because she could be the President-in-waiting. But the real issue here is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Like I said, I'm not picking on Palin. I'm calling out every politician who holds irrational views about the Constitution. Just as EJB wrote about politicians and their lack of economic knowledge, I note the problems of electing leaders who do not understand the underlying principles of the laws they are expected to create. This problem is, unfortunately, bipartisan. I've already pointed out Joe Biden's misquoting of the Constitution. There is the famous case of Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who failed to understand the proper Constitutionally-mandated Presidential line of succession (he yelled out "I am in control here" after Reagan was shot). Even President's are guilty of Constitutional ignorance. Nixon famously argued that "when the President does it, it is not illegal." And President Bush has taken Constitutional ignorance to its logical (and deplorable) outcome: shunning the Constitution entirely ( "a goddamn piece of paper").

This is cause for concern. Reading the Constitution ought to be a prerequisite for holding any national public office. It is the backbone of our legal system and the preserver of our freedoms. How can we hope to live in a constitutionally protected society when our leaders can't correctly quote or appropriately reference the document? I'm not arguing that every politician must be a constitutional scholar. I'm simply hoping that those entrusted with the role of creating the laws which govern our society can find it in themselves to take the time to sit down, grab a muffin and some coffee, and just read the damn thing. It's short - I promise.