Bill of Rights Day and Intellectual Freedom

Civil Liberties, First Amendment

By: Rebecca Slocum

“The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

Thus begins the Preamble to the United States Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments of our nation’s Constitution. Upon the United States’ inception, our founding fathers established these amendments as a check on the federal government. After their mistreatment under the British crown, America wanted to ensure that the Constitution spelled out not only what the U.S. government could do, but also what it explicitly could NOT do. The Bill of Rights protects what America’s original citizens believed to be our natural rights, inherent in our humanity: freedom of religion; freedom of speech, press, petition, and assembly; privacy; due process of the law; and equality before the law.

Today, December 15, 2018, we celebrate the 227th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Bill of Rights Day on this day in 1941 to honor and observe the preservation of our individual rights.

First Amendment displayed on Newseum in Washington D.C.As librarians, teachers, and defenders of intellectual freedom, we often stop after the 1st Amendment. That is our focus: protecting speech, both written and spoken; protecting our right to peaceably assemble, to express dissent to our government leaders; protecting the press and those working to keep our nation informed and able to participate in democracy. We even have our own Library Bill of Rights to further dissect what it means to support our rights to intellectual freedom. We do not generally focus on the subsequent nine amendments. After all, intellectual freedom does not really coincide with our right to bear arms; to be free from unwarranted search and seizure; to be spared from incarceration without a speedy trial.

Or does it? In our quest to protect intellectual freedom, it may seem as though the First Amendment is our only castle to defend and censorship our only enemy; the other nine amendments merely minor villages to be defended with any remaining troops. However, just as a monarchy relies on its people to help support and provide for the entire kingdom, so do our first amendment rights depend on the other nine to support and encourage ALL of our individual freedoms. In other words, our right to ingest and convey any and all manner of information is only as strong and secure as our right to a trial by a jury of our peers or our freedom from quartering soldiers against our will. If our founding fathers believed in the inherent nature of these individual rights so strongly that they created the Bill of Rights to secure them, then each amendment is indeed essential to upholding intellectual freedom.

The right to bear arms aims to ensure our physical protection; open access to information reinforces our intellectual armor. The freedom from quartering soldiers during peace time protects our homes and families; copyright laws protect stories and other creative endeavors from being used without proper attribution. The freedom from unwarranted search and seizure safeguards our home and belongings from being taken without cause; fighting against censorship protects our words and ideas from being confiscated or hidden away. The right to not be incarcerated unless indicted by a grand jury and the right to due process of the law protects our legal rights in the event of a criminal charge; the review process in the event of a book challenge protects controversial books from being removed from the collection without further assessment. The right to a fair and speedy trial by a jury of our peers allows for the public to help ensure justice in our nation; I’d call social media a jury of our peers when it comes to standing up against censorship. Our freedom to claim other inalienable rights as our own, even though not listed in the Constitution, prevents the expansion of government control; there are certainly unknown technologies and events that will challenge intellectual freedom in the future, and it remains our right and responsibility to continue fighting for it.

We primarily cite the First Amendment in defending intellectual freedom, but our individual rights to physical freedoms are inherently intertwined with our rights to intellectual freedoms. I believe that our fight to uphold one of these “inalienable rights” is a fight to uphold them all.

“But in the end it is each citizen who is responsible for protecting the liberties set forth in the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”
– President Ronald Reagan

Happy Bill of Rights Day!


Rebecca Slocum has worked in education as a teacher and library consultant for the last 5 years and is a recent MLIS graduate student from the University of North Texas. She is interested in issues involving intellectual freedom, censorship, and collection development in school libraries. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys reading, writing, running, and roaming the world. Currently, she stays at home caring for her son and writes at her blog, The Dewey Decimator. Find her on Twitter @bcslocum.

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