It was 1961. We were playing stickball in front of the church, Saint Frances of Rome, re-enacting the Yankees beating the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. As I threw the Spaulding over the plate, I heard his voice; “Guys…don’t play in front of the church”. It was Father Flynn. He was a Rhodes Scholar, who grew up in Hells Kitchen. It was said, that as a youth, he was a bad dude and had sought the priesthood to atone for his sins.
Since I was always one to push the envelope, I answered; “Hey ‘Fadder’…it’s a free country”. He walked straight toward me and I thought, “Bless me ‘Fadder’ for I have sinned.” Within two steps he grabbed me by my swivel stick (neck) and said, “Yea Joey, it’s a free country so I’m gonna knock ‘ya’ silly”. My Guardian Angel intervened. Father gained his composure, tightened his grip on my neck, looked straight through me, and whispered, “Joey Boy…never again”!
I knew Father would exact a retribution that would teach me a lesson and satisfy his enormous intellect. As he released my neck, he asked, “What’s freedom mean Joey”? “You better have an answer by tomorrow”!
Reluctantly, I went to the library. I knew he would hold me accountable. There I found the intricacies of the “Bill of Rights”, and discovered America; this great social experiment; and have since been fascinated by American Political Ideals.
Last week, the Valley Sun ran a piece about Will Fleet, the paper’s publisher. Will discussed his passion of freedom of the press; and connected freedom of expression to a free society. His thoughts were brief; and since I wanted to read more, I hoped the Valley Sun would exploit Will’s inclination to speak on a free press and his contention that we citizens need to be reminded of what the First Amendment means. That’s important stuff. Thomas Jefferson said, “A press that is free to investigate and criticize the government is absolutely essential in a nation that practices self-government…”
A foundational knowledge of the First Amendment is the essence of good citizenship. I’ll take the first step to introduce you to this extraordinary work, “The Bill of Rights”. If you get it…you get America. You know…there’s more to America than economic and social mobility. The real story lies in the plurality of its citizenry dedicated to values upon which our country was founded.
George Mason, the lifelong champion of the rights and freedoms of the citizenry is the Father of the “Bill of Rights” and asserted the principle of inalienable rights; freedoms inherent to humanity. In 1776 Mason drafted the “Virginia Declaration of Rights”, a facsimile of our first 10 amendments called, “The Bill of Rights. James Madison introduced “The Bill of Rights” to the Constitution in the House of Representatives. They were adopted in 1791.
The First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press or the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.
The Bill of Rights defines America…freedom. Only 400 words long, it forms the most comprehensive protection of individual liberty ever written. Initially, it was a document responding to the fear of tyranny; yet, the values that it protects are timeless.
The First Amendment created a fourth institution outside the government as an additional check on the three official branches (the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary). It was to promote a free exchange of ideas.
John Kennedy said, “We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people”.
The next day, Father Flynn tracked me down at my family’s deli; I thought I dazzled him with my soliloquy on the “Bill of Rights”. He seemed a bit agitated. After he heard me out…he said, “Joey, you left something out”! Then, he opened a bottle of Pepsi and left with a smirk as wide as a Texas smile. “Dog-gone”, I thought!
Years past before I figured out what I left out. Before I turn in tonight, I’m gonna tell Father what I learned saving countries in the jungles of Vietnam. Hey ‘Fadder’, “It’s responsibility and accountability to truth”!