Saturday, December 01, 2007

First Amendment Responsibilities

Sex sells. I saw another smutty “Bebe” fashion billboard in the bus stop shelters in Pasadena. I thought to myself that I could complain again to the Viacom PR representative, who I was eventually referred to a couple of years ago after having made numerous calls to the Los Angeles County MTA. Of course the MTA, which is under the auspices of LA County whom I pay taxes to support, will say that they don’t actually own the bus shelters. But that’s just a technicality, since the MTA has control over the bus stops and profits from those whom the MTA decides can own the shelters that cover the bus stops. Responsibility is so densely layered in the County/City/MTA/Viacom bureaucratic labyrinth that, finding the ultimate source of responsibility is like finding the source of a mysterious river.

It is always good for people who make the decisions to place those ads to feel at least a little heat. However, in the absence of any torrent of criticism from the public, the Viacom representative, who is only the public mouthpiece of the Viacom chiefs, would merely refer to Viacom’s corporate First Amendment trump card -- Sex that sells is a protected form of expression granted by the First Amendment for a business to make a buck.

This got me thinking about a larger problem with the First Amendment as it is applied by the “sex sells” crowd of professional corporate defenders. I have cycled through many attempts to crisply explain the moral problem with their First Amendment mentality. Then it occurred to me, if rights and responsibilities go together, which is a simple moral arithmetic for any reasonable person, our First Amendment rights must come with First Amendment responsibilities.

It also occurred to me that “First Amendment responsibilities” sounds odd. I haven’t actually heard that phrase before. I daresay that far more people in our country are far quicker on the draw in defending their First Amendment rights than in explaining their First amendment responsibilities. So what are our first amendment responsibilities? Our First Amendment responsibilities emanate from something that is implicit in both the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble of the Constitution.

The Declaration of Independence affirms our existence as beings that have been granted “moral patent” by a Creator. In the same manner that a landlord has been granted a “deed” that give him A) the privilege to do with his land what he wishes (within reason) and B) the responsibility to the law and government and inhabitors of his land, so too do we as moral “patent” holders have both freedom and responsibility as human beings that comes with our “moral title”. As “moral patent” holders, we are acknowledged to have a moral right to pursue Liberty, as that moral freedom wherein freedom and responsibility are inseparably wedded together.

It is the Preamble of the Constitution which is established by “We the People” for the advancement of the “Common Good”. Built on the moral foundation of the Declaration which recognizes our “moral patent”, the Pre-Amble defines our collective and individual moral responsibility as American citizens to bear the “Common Good” on our shoulders. An American citizen might read the Preamble superficially and think that his responsibility for the Common Good begins and ends with voting, and that the Bill of Rights exists merely to protect our rights from the schemes of government.

However, the Preamble is operating in a more complete and more demanding moral picture. The representative government outlined in the Constitution outlines one medium by which We exercise our responsibility to the Common Good, by voting for our representatives. Our subsequent rights to speech, bearing arms, etc… amend and elaborate on the Constitution and its Preamble in this way: the Bill of Rights outline yet more mediums of action for us to shoulder our burden to advance Common Good, mediums of action which were intended to compliment voting.

Contained in the Declaration and the Preamble is an implied “American Great Commission”, which can be summed up as, “Go forth, citizen, to exercise your rights so as to make the most good faith effort you can to shoulder your responsibility for the Common Good via every means available to you.” Our First Amendment responsibilities are therefore to advance this “American Great Commission” through the medium of the spoken word, and were are to be protected from the government infringing on this exercise of our moral freedom.

The Framers wrote the Bill Of Rights because they were acknowledging the existence of “moral patent” and the “American Great Commission” as pre-existent moral realities. The Framers did not see themselves as granting us the rights, but as acknowledging rights that were endowed to us at the beginning of our existence/creation. For the Framers, history at then end of the 18th century was merely catching up to what had always been a moral truth.

This is important for this reason. If Person A is exercising his First Amendment right as merely a legal right, he is appealing primarily to the parchment of the First Amendment and to his good fortune that a Framer’s pen touched the paper in a certain way. In response to criticism, Person A, like any corporate “Sex sells” defender, will hold up the First Amendment parchment as a shield, and when his critics walk away he’ll say to himself, “Whew…dodged a bullet!”

Meanwhile, if Person B is making an earnest, good faith effort to advance the common good of our country, he is exercising his First Amendment right as part of the two faceted moral reality recognized by the Founders, with freedom/discretion as one facet and responsibility as the other facet. Meanwhile, Person A is merely exploiting the benefit to himself and his corporation that was bequeathed to him by the Framers’ attempt to reify a moral reality in law.

The moral dimension of the law is the foundation of our nation. The technicalities of the law only supplement the moral dimension of the law, when the parties involved are acting in good faith to advance the deeper moral idea. A mentality that merely looks to the legal words on paper to justify actions at the expense of looking to the deeper moral reality is a mentality that will eventually weaken the law, severing it from its moral foundation.

Sex sells. It’s good for profits of Viacom and the MTA for the time being that the Framers made smut a technically legal use of the First Amendment in our licentious, morally somnambulant society of 2007. While it is a legal use of the First Amendment, it is not a moral use of it. The mentality that defends “Sex sells” as a First Amendment right is a mentality that does not rise to the moral calling the American Great Commission, and the spread of that mentality signals a decline in our nation.

No comments: