Commentary

U.S. Constitution Is under Siege

Our Constitution — still a “wonder” for those around the world struggling to be free — is largely absent from the curriculum in our schools. That’s a crucial failure seldom mentioned by the diverse array of education reformers.

Were I teaching again — I’ve taught the Bill of Rights to fifth-graders and to adult evening classes — I would focus on what James Madison, a primary architect of the Bill of Rights, emphasized as the essence of “property rights.”

Madison begins by defining “property.” Obviously, he says, “a man’s land, or merchandise, or money is called his property.”

But then he goes on to say that a person also “has property in his opinions and the free communication of them.”

A person has, says Madison, “a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.”

(As an atheist, I would add: A person has property in his right to have no religious opinions — and not be penalized thereby.)

Madison further expands the American definition of property by stating that it includes that which is most dear to an individual — “the safety and liberty of his person.”

In other words, added Madison: “As a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights.”

Madison could not specifically foresee the extent and depth by which these liberty rights would be abused by future American officials and courts.

But he had studied the degree of liberty in many countries. Accordingly, he warned: “Where an excess of power prevails, property of no sort is duly respected. No man is safe in his opinions, his person, his faculties, or his possessions.”

At this point, if I were teaching students our Constitution, I’d mention such excesses of government power in our history as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Just seven years after the ratification of the First Amendment, that act imprisoned Americans for their opinions, including speech that brought the president or congress “into contempt or disrepute.”

I’d also mention that President Obama, like his predecessor George W. Bush, has authorized investigations of Americans and the compiling of data on them without any articulable suspicion of criminal activity — and without a warrant from a judge. This is the name of safeguarding national security and with little outcry from Congress or the citizenry.

According to the ACLU’s Michael German — a former FBI anti-terrorism special agent — “erroneous, misleading information” gathered and kept on file by the government “pollutes the entire system that local, state and federal law enforcement is relying on.”

Madison warned us: “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

Are you guarding your own property rights in your “opinions and the free communications of them”?

The Constitution needs your help.

Nat Hentoff is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press,and a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.