Critical Thinking

“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 Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America)

The framers of the U.S. Constitution felt so strongly about the importance of freedom of speech to our fledgling democracy that they enshrined the broad right to it in the First Amendment to the Constitution. Certainly, we all understand that the First Amendment provides some general guidelines about freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, redressing grievances, and freedom of religion (and the role of religion and government). Reading it, sometimes people are surprised by how little information it actually provides; hence, the 250-year-old argument – one continuing virtually daily across the country. However much we value freedom of speech, this right is not completely unfettered. Citizens cannot, for example, threaten grievous harm to the President of the United States. In fact, U.S. law has variously upheld a number of exceptions to this right – notably in cases of obscenity, sedition, public alarm (the so-called ‘yelling fire in a crowded theater’ scenario), and incitement to crime.

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The Second Amendment has hardly been less controversial than the First Amendment, although (contrary to popular opinion) it has not faced nearly the legal challenges that the First Amendment has faced. However, in the wake of increasingly horrific mass murders, politicians and citizens alike have begun to ask the question of the extent to which citizens’ rights to own firearms supersede the right to public safety.

For your next assignment in English 220, I want you to address one particular aspect of one of the amendments in the Bill of Rights. In this essay, you will examine a basic question that is faced by all modern democratic societies: the question of whether or not the community at large has a prevailing responsibility to guarantee these most basic of American rights – regardless of the consequences – or whether society has a supervening responsibility to ensure the greater communal good — even if this means abridging rights that have traditionally been guaranteed to American citizens.

Although you are encouraged to develop your own topic, I am attaching to this assignment sheet a series of recent cases that highlight some of the issues that should be at the center of your argument.

Regardless of the topic that you choose, you must do outside reading in order to complete this assignment. After you do some reading on the subject of the constitutional Amendments in general, you will clarify your position on the issue and then write a roughly 4-5 page essay in which you argue either for unrestricted freedoms or for certain restrictions on some aspect of one of our Constitutionally-guaranteed rights as American citizens.

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