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First Amendment monument encourages all to offer views

April 20, 2006

Express yourself, in public, in any way you choose.

That's the message being sent by the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, which will dedicate a monument to First Amendment today in Charlottesville, Va.

But this monument will be more than a marble tablet with the amendment's words carved into it. It will also include a section that will allow citizens to express their thoughts.

The center is setting up a chalkboard at the site of the monument that will be seven feet high and 44 feet long. According to The Associated Press, anyone will be allowed to write anything - offensive or not - on the board.

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The only limitation will be that the slate will be wiped clean every Thursday, to make way for a new round of statements.

The First Amendment is something many Americans tend to take for granted, because it has been in effect since 1791, when it was approved as the first of ten protections in the Bill of Rights.

According to the First Amendment Center in Arlington, Va., without the First Amendment, "religious minorities could be persecuted, the government might well establish a national religion, protesters could be silenced, the press could not criticize government and citizens could not mobilize for social change."

Does anyone doubt that if it were possible, some would push for an endorsement of a national religion or worse, redefine treason as any criticism a citizen made of the government?

The federal government tried to do just that in 1798, when President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Most of the provisions of the legislation concerned restrictions on non-citizens of the U.S., but another made it a crime to print "false, scandalous and malicious writing" about the government or elected officials.

Under that standard, any comment of President Clinton's dalliance with Monica Lewinsky would have been out of bounds. Thankfully, the act expired in 1800.

The First Amendment is only as permanent as the citizen support it receives. As the First Amendment Center notes, there is a vigorous debate about whether it should cover flag burning (as symbolic speech), tobacco advertising, hate speech, pornography and obscene rap and heavy-metal music lyrics.

Your favored form of expression might be offensive to someone else, but the First Amendment guarantees that neither one can censor the other.

It's an American right worth remembering even when it's not under attack - and worth defending vigorously when someone tries to rewrite it to fit their own definition of freedom.

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