YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT—OR TO SPEAK FREELY.
Every year some students come to my classroom with the idea that the United States is a horrific nation, that it is unfair, unjust, and essentially, that it’s the worst place on the planet to live. Other students have no idea whatsoever what this nation stands for, the rights and liberties that we have by virtue of The Constitution of the United States and, in fact, they barely know what The Constitution is. As for The Bill of Rights, that’s not even on their radar. So—we have some frank and honest discussions about what this nation stands for, the rights that we have, and the importance of defending and protecting those rights because if they are taken away, we won’t get them back. Virtually none of the students know these rights. Consequently, because the language of The Bill of Rights is so archaic, we spend some time breaking it down.
The United States of America is the only nation in the world that guarantees these rights to its citizens.
The Purpose of The Bill of Rights
The Bill of Rights contains the first 10 Amendments to The Constitution. It spells out Americans’ rights in relation to their government. It guarantees civil rights and liberties to the individual—like freedom of speech, press, and religion. It sets rules for due process of law and reserves all powers not delegated to the Federal Government to the people or the States. According to the National Archives, here is the breakdown of the rights that we have in this great nation:
The First Amendment
- Contains the right to express ideas through speech and the press,
- To assemble or gather with a group to protest or for other reasons,
- To ask the government to fix problems,
- To protect the right to religious beliefs and practices, and
- To prevent the government from creating or favoring a religion.
The Second Amendment
- Protects the right to keep (own) and bear arms (carry weapons).
The Third Amendment
- Prevents government from forcing homeowners to allow soldiers to use their homes. (Before the Revolutionary War, laws gave British soldiers the right to take over private homes.)
The Fourth Amendment
- Bars the government from unreasonable search and seizure of an individual or their private property. (The government must have a search warrant or grounds for arrest.)
The Fifth Amendment
- Provides several protections for people accused of crimes:
- Serious criminal charges must be started by a grand jury,
- A person cannot be tried twice for the same offense (double jeopardy),
- Property may not taken away without just compensation (fair payment),
- People have the right against self-incrimination (testifying against themselves) and
- People cannot be imprisoned without due process of law (fair procedures and trials).
The Sixth Amendment
- Provides additional protections to people accused of crimes:
- The right to a speedy and public trial, trial by an impartial jury in criminal cases,
- To be informed of criminal charges,
- To be represented by a lawyer,
- Witnesses must face the accused, and
- The accused is allowed his or her own witnesses.
The Seventh Amendment
- Extends the right to a jury trial in Federal civil cases.
The Eighth Amendment
- Bars excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishment.
The Ninth Amendment
- Specific rights in The Constitution do not mean that people do not have other rights that have not been spelled out.
The Tenth Amendment
- The Federal Government only has those powers delegated in The Constitution. If a right is not listed, it belongs to the states or to the people.
I’m happy to report that by the time we finish decoding The Bill of Rights, students have a new appreciation for the United States. The fact is that America is the only nation in the world to guarantee these rights to its citizens. Millions of us will be forever grateful for the sacrifices made by our forefathers to give us this great document, but more than anything, I am grateful to the Lord for birthing this great nation over 240 years today. So may I say—
Happy Birthday, America—and many, many more!!