Today is Bill of Rights Day. So it’s an appropriate time to consider the state of our constitutional safeguards.
Let’s consider each amendment in turn.
The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, have insisted that they can gag recipients of “national security letters” and censor broadcast ads in the name of campaign finance reform and arrest people for simply distributing pamphlets on a sidewalk.
The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, make it difficult to keep a gun in the home and make it a crime for a citizen to carry a gun for self-protection.
The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is one of the few that is in fine shape – so we can pause here for a laugh.
The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can conduct commando-style raids on our homes and treat airline travelers like prison inmates by conducting virtual strip searches.
The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can use eminent domain to take away our property and give it to other private parties who covet it. The Fifth Amendment also protects our right against self-incrimination, but government officials tell us lies and trick many people into waiving that right while they warn their own families to "lawyer up" immediately.
The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused is guaranteed a right to trial by jury. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial—“throwing the book” at those who refuse to plead guilty—which explains why 95 percent of the criminal cases never go to trial.
The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases where the controversy “shall exceed twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines on people without jury trials.
The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense is not cruel.
The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.
The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers they possess, and have extended federal control over health care, crime, education, and other matters the Constitution reserves to the states and the people.
It’s a disturbing snapshot, to be sure, but not one the Framers of the Constitution would have found altogether surprising. They would sometimes refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers,” or what we call “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that having a written constitution was better than having nothing at all.
The key point is this: A free society does not just “happen.” It has to be deliberately created and deliberately maintained. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than six million copies of our pocket Constitution. At this time of year, it’ll make a great stocking stuffer.
Let’s enjoy the holidays (and remember many of the positive trends that are underway) but let’s also resolve to be more vigilant about defending our Constitution. To learn more about Cato’s work in defense of the Constitution, go here. To support the work of Cato, go here.