The U.S. Constitution: What Does It Really Mean?
The main idea of the article is to discuss the interpretation of the meaning of two Amendments from the U.S. Bill of Rights. The discussion of these Amendments from the point of strict constructionist and “living document” methods of interpretation is important from the point of better understanding of current conditions in American society. This article also considers the limitations of the existing documents, which can cause misunderstanding and violation of the law by the government for their profit. The author tries to give the interpretation of the Amendments from the point of the mentioned interpretation methods.
The Importance of the Bill of Rights Analysis
The fourth U.S. president, James Madison, had implemented the Bill of Rights to guarantee the protection of the rights and freedoms of American citizens. Since the U.S. Constitution had certain disadvantages and allowed the dictatorial leader to ignore the definite rights of citizens, Madison considered the creation of the Bill of Rights to be the wise decision for the protection of civil rights from government encroachment. From this point of view, it is very important for the preservation of the basic principles of democracy in American society. The study and analysis of its Amendments realization in the contemporary society in the U.S. will provide the solution to the question about whether the democratic values still have weight in the U.S.
Another important aspect of the Bill of Rights analysis is to determine whether the formulation of its main amendments gives the government a possibility to overstep the limits underlying the Bill of Rights. The discussion of the latest researches in this sphere is important for the evaluation of the Bill of Rights real effectiveness from the point of civilian rights protection.
The Strict Constructionist Interpretation of Amendment I
The first Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights enshrines the right of citizens to freedom of religion, as well as to express their interests and demands to the government. The First Amendment states:
” 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 “strict constructionist” method of the Constitution’ amendments interpretation assumes that the specialist should interpret Constitution and its Amendments based on the words of the law itself. In this way, the judges and the officials must be guided by the text set forth in the Constitution, preventing the free interpretation of the law. From this point of view, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that it protects the civilians’ right to freedom of expression and religion. Thus, the government and society have to respect and observe these rights of the person in the U.S. The government has no right to encourage the establishment of one religion in the country and harass religious minorities. Every person has a right to free religious practice in the United States.
As for the freedom of the person’s mind expression, citizens have a right to express their opinions in any form, in person or through the media. The First Amendment does not indicate the taboo topics that are prohibited for discussion in society. In this way, the law makes it possible to discuss any matter in society. The Americans also have a right to assemble peaceably and petition the government to protect their rights and freedoms.
First of all, the specialists should discuss the ambiguity in the language of the First Amendments, which make it possible for the government to interpret the law in their favor and limit the rights of citizens in their interests. As for the question of the religious freedom, the amendment is transparent. It limits the rights of Congress, fencing it from the administration of religious issues in the country.
As for the second part of the First Amendment, the discussion of any case in the society is allowed. In any case, the government cannot limit the scope of the issues that the community addresses. But the actual state of affairs in modern American community shows that this requirement of the First Amendment has been violated by the US government.
The discussion of the part of the text, which protects the right of citizens to assemble peaceably, raises questions because of its ambiguity. The main word in this phrase is the assumption of peaceful demonstrations. The issue is how a government and society can classify the type of civilian protests. As soon as the First Amendment protects the right of peaceful demonstrations, the government reserves the right to suppress the protests, which do not belong to the peaceful. In this case, the Federal and local authorities are free to interpret the nature of civil protests. In their own interests, they may recognize protest as the non-peaceful and move to its suppression. Thus, they are not limited by the first Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
The actual experience of the First Amendment usage in the relations of society and the state shows that the government neglects most of its principles. The principle of worship freedom, which seems to be less sharp and urgent issue for the Americans, meets misunderstanding and resistance from local authorities. Michael Tomasky stated that “there is a steady stream of cases involving some local government or school board preventing someone from wearing religious clothing or facial hair or what have you.” Tomasky also finds it increasingly difficult for the religious minorities in the U.S. nowadays to defend the freedom of religion.
The practical realization of the free speech principle of the First Amendment in the U.S. shows that the government had also violated this Constitutional Amendment. But for this case the situation is ambiguous. The Supreme Court has identified the list of categories of speech that cannot be protected by the First Amendment. According to Kathleen Ann Ruane, this list includes “obscenity, child pornography, and speech that constitutes so-called “fighting words” or “true threats””. For this circumstance, it is difficult to define whether the First Amendment was violated. As soon as it forbids the Congress to provide laws that limit the right for free speech, the actions by the Supreme Court cannot be qualified as a violation of the Amendment. The Bill of Rights does not indicate a Supreme Court as a body, which is prohibited to restrict the rights of citizens. From the point of the “strict constructionist” method of interpretation, there is no violation of the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court considered these categories of speech to be harmful to the American society and expressed its intention not to extend the list of prohibited topics for discussion.
The ultimate meaning of the First Amendment is that the Congress as the highest organ of state power cannot establish the religion in the country or prohibit any religious exercise thereof. It also has no power to forbid the free speech of the American citizens regardless of the topic. The citizens have a right to peaceful meeting and treatment with a petition to the authorities to protect their rights and freedoms.
The Living Document Interpretation of Amendment II
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights enshrines the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. The Second Amendment states ”A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”.
The “living document” method of the U.S. Constitution interpretation is based on a fact that the fundamental law of the state should be relevant to the conditions of the modern society. The specialist that decides to interpret the Constitution should not focus only on the text in the document, but also take into account the views of contemporaneous society. In this case, the Constitution and its Amendments can be adapted to the needs of today and to ensure law and order.
As for the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, it guarantees that the government will not violate the citizens’ right to own and bear weapons in any place and under any circumstances. But from the point of the “living document” interpretation, this rule should be placed in the framework of the rule of law. In the contemporary American society, the availability of weapons for all segments of the population creates certain problems. For every year, there is an increasing number of tragic events, when a psychopath or a fanatic uses a weapon for mass murder in the United States. The provision of the Second Amendment, which protects the right of the citizens to bear weapons, might have been adequate for the time of the Bill of Rights implementation. But nowadays the situation is different, and the government ha to discuss this Amendment’s meaning to provide safety in the society.
Talking about the ambiguity of the language of the Second Amendment, there seems to be a definite gap in the text of the amendment, which allows officials to restrict the right of citizens to own and bear arms. The Amendment mentions the civilians’ right to own guns due to the need to maintain the “well-regulated militia,” which can protect the country in the time of need. If the legislators and the Supreme Court of the U.S. manage to clearly establish this relationship, they can justify the need for the abolition of the rule because of the presence of combat-ready, and numerous U.S. Army. In fact, if the Second Amendment gives citizens a possibility to own weapons only for the country’s protection, the presence of the powerful military force can make this claim untenable.
At the same time, the Amendment does not regulate the cases, in which a person can use his weapon. This circumstance makes it impossible for the government not to violate the requirements of this law. As soon as the authorities have to provide the safety of the society, they need to regulate the flow of weapons into dangerous hands. If for example, this Amendment allowed citizens to use weapons only for self-defense, the government would have been able to provide the safety of the society by withdrawing weapons from dangerous persons. In this case, the authorities would not have violated the requirements of the Second Amendment.
Lyle Denniston agrees that the language of the Second Amendment creates conditions for the revision of the law laid down in it. As Denniston claimed, “The only place that Americans can look for a binding interpretation of what the Constitution’s words mean are the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court”. According to her, the “living document” interpretation of the Amendment by the Supreme Court can change the law according to the currently existing conditions.
Jud Lawrie considers the “living document” method to be the best suited for evaluation of the Second Amendment. She claims that the adaptation of the law to the nowadays characteristics of the American society is necessary to provide its safety. According to Lawrie, “The pro-gun people argue that the Second Amendment creates a "right" that is inviolate. That something written over 200 years ago must still apply exactly as written as if nothing has changed. That's nonsense!”
The ultimate meaning of the Second Amendment is that the government and local authorities have no power to violate the civilian’s right to own and bear weapons. The owner of the gun can use it for any cause.
The issue of the Constitution and its basic Amendments interpretation remains relevant in the contemporary U.S. society. The conflict between the government and the society, and inside the society itself, needs explicit permission by the correct interpretation of existing laws. Many principles of citizens’ rights that were secured in the Bill of Rights are now subjects to revision or even abolition. The liquidation of discrepancies and misunderstanding of the law by authorities and the society will help to reduce the level of tensions and regulate public relations.
This process is extremely important for the first two Amendments of the Bill of Rights. As soon as they protect the basic rights of the Americans, a clear explanation of the rights of all parties of society embodied in this document, it is necessary for the sustainable development of community and the state.