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First Amendment freedom

Mar 25, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

They huddled in the shade, avoiding the blistering humid heat of an early July afternoon in rural Pennsylvania.

The 13,000 men represented the last, best hope of the Confederacy to defy the odds and defeat the overwhelming might of Mr. Lincoln's Army of the Potomac.

As the noon hour drew to a close, the men of Virginia, with a smattering of others from the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas and Arkansas, moved forward to their posts.

In an hour, most of them would lie dead in front of the Union defensive positions across the narrow valley. Their defeat on the third day at Gettysburg confirmed the end of the antebellum South.

Courage was a common commodity that fateful afternoon. Every man from 15 to 50 knew it was suicide. But in the words of Civil War author Shelby Foote, "No man had the kind of courage it took to say 'No, Marsh Robert, (the endearing slang term the men had for General Robert E. Lee) I ain't going.'"

Instead, they stepped forward, marched a few hundred yards to meet eternity.

In our modern era. the idea of patriotism has taken on a decidedly militaristic tone. Evidently you can't be a patriot unless you are wearing a uniform and openly engaged with an enemy, either foreign or domestic.

It is a strange state of affairs in our growingly strange country.

Young men volunteer to join the military to defend the country, the constitution and the Bill of Rights, while many of those who claim to support them are the first to attempt to deny the rights of the same citizens these young people are willing to die to defend.

It is a strange paradox indeed.

Listening to extremists, you would be led to believe that the only amendment that matters at all in America is the second. Inane rhetoric circles the 27 words that constitute the amendment, which reads as follows:

"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."

It is clear that the founding fathers feared standing armies. To a man, the authors of the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights had no use for permanent, standing armies. England had a standing army, and the fledgling United States fought a prolonged, bloody war against it.

Why would we ever want to become what we fought so desperately to defeat?

It is a question that is rarely asked today.

The chant of "support the troops" drowns out most civil discussion on why we have concerning a million men stationed in 900-plus bases around the world. Politicians who ask why we must occupy every bastion on the planet are either quickly decried as crackpots, or voted just as quickly out of office.

The ability to question our growingly imperial motives is, thankfully, retained in the First Amendment. It is no coincidence that the essence of personal liberties lies in that amendment, the very first one added to the Constitution.

Free speech, free press, free assembly and the right to choose your own religion are the cornerstones of our democracy.

These freedoms often are the focus of misguided despots. Despots come in all shapes and sizes. They don't have to rise to a level of Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot to qualify as despots. They can just as easily be found in the form of overbearing bosses, pushy elected boards or public officials who believe the office gives them the right to deny rights to others. It is more of a cavernous jump than a slippery slope in dealing with people of this ilk.

In America, no one has the right to tell you what you can or cannot think or talk about. They can't prevent the press from running a story, and only the most sordid purveyors of propaganda even attempt it.

On occasion I've taken photos of automobile accidents, fires or even crime scenes. Invariably there is a self-appointed censor trying to block me from taking the pictures. Identifying myself as a member of the press just seems to infuriate them.

Their rants have never stopped me yet, and they don't stop any other reporters or photographers, either. But their motivation does make me wonder.

There are many countries where these people would feel at home, philosophically. Communist China, North Korea, Iran and Vietnam come to mind.

The biggest difference between a free society and a communist or dictatorial one isn't in voting, salaries or commerce. It is in the right of the people to know what their local, county, state and federal governments (or their equivalents) are up to.

There can be no freedom without a free press. Learning what a corrupt official is up to early in his or her scheme is always better than repairing the damage later.

It takes courage to speak the truth. It always has. Anyone who would block others from expressing their beliefs, ideas or simply their opinions is worthy of quick ouster and public scorn.

It is the right of the people to know, and their responsibility to say so.

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