The First Amendment is Important but Sometimes Misunderstood


Emma Johnson

Teachers protest legislation at the state Capitol.

Emma Johnson, Editor in Chief

Hundreds of people dressed in red; adults, children, and dogs shivering in the freezing wind; signs waving high in the air; speakers at a microphone alternating with cheers from the crowd. 

This is what the First Amendment looks like. 

On Tuesday, Feb. 22nd, I attended a rally at the Utah State Capitol about teachers’ rights. Recently, the Utah state legislature has proposed a series of bills that would challenge teachers’ authority, privacy, and dignity. For example, one bill proposed that teachers be required to publish their curriculum 30 days in advance for review by parents, most of whom don’t have the training and experience to know how to run a classroom. 

Technicalities aside, these teachers were upset. They felt betrayed by their representatives, and after speaking to several of them I could clearly see how much this means to them. Despite this anger, and despite the cold conditions outside, these teachers came out to peacefully show the legislature that they mean business. The crowd was respectful yet passionate, a great example of an effective demonstration. 

It was incredibly exciting and impressive for me to see these teachers and administrators out protesting in below-freezing temperatures at the Utah state capital and standing up for themselves after a barrage of attacks over the past few years. 

SLEA President and Highland teacher James Tobler speaks at the rally.

By contrast, last summer I remember people filling the streets in a similar sight, demanding fair and equal rights, emboldened by the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests; but tanks were lining the crowd, police with AKs and riot gear watching menacingly, releasing tear gas into the throng and taking some nonviolent protestors to the police station.  

This unfortunate scenario was in response to a small number of people who used the protests as an opportunity to perpetuate violence and vandalism. The vast majority of the demonstrators were peaceful and respectful, and unfairly had to deal with the police oversight that they did not incur. 

When the troublemakers were not present and only nonviolent protestors filled the area, the armed police felt threatening and unnecessary. I was worried at times that more violence would break out because of this.  

In the United States of America, which hails itself as a nation built on freedom, is this promise being honored? I have participated in marches from helping the environment to increasing gun regulations. I have seen different ways in which law enforcement reacts to these rallies, as well as how the general public receives them. And though I know that the First Amendment is often misused, I have seen some beautiful things come of it. 

To me as a student, this was very meaningful because they were living what they teach. They were showing that the First Amendment isn’t just something written down on paper, but that it’s a living idea with very real applications. I hope that these teachers gain the respect and compensation they deserve, and it is clear that if their requests are still denied they know how to come out in protest. 

The teachers’ rally illustrated many of the wonderful aspects of the First Amendment, but I’ve also experienced its bad side. I’ve seen myriad times at which the principle is overlooked, misconstrued, or downright abused. I’ve seen people attack others upon no basis at all and silence voices they simply don’t want heard.  

One of the most striking examples was a discussion with some of my journalistic peers in which one of them directly praised a mass shooter for exercising their First Amendment right to assemble at a protest and their second amendment right to murder using a firearm. At first I was shocked and alarmed that anyone would think this, much less say it, but it led me to question what people, especially in my generation, think the First Amendment means.  

Of course, the First Amendment is complicated, as most things are. Nonetheless, I believe there are some lines that should never be crossed. However, in many ways the current social climate has led Americans to feel that they can do whatever they want, physically as well as verbally. It seems a scary task to have to teach people to understand the difference between advocating for oneself and tearing another down for no reason.  

In the past few years, the world has been moving at an alarming rate through vessels such as social media and quick-hitter media outlets. I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to have any sort of regulation or accountability for people using the First Amendment for its intended function, one that is just and productive. Possible or not, I hope we as a nation reach that point someday.