First Amendment in Jeopardy?

One of the most precious rights Americans have is the First Amendment, otherwise known as the right to free speech. This Amendment is the reason why we have the freedom to say virtually anything we want to and not wind up in jail for it. Oh, sure, you can’t yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded building or make threats against individuals, buildings or this country. Try that and you’ll be trying to convince the authorities that you really didn’t mean anything by what you said. Otherwise, we can all say pretty much whatever we darn well please. Or at least it used to be that way.

Consider that the First Amendment covers not only vebal speech but the printed word as well…and by extension, photographs. So, not only can we say whatever we please but we can write what we please and take photos of whatever we can point a camera at. Again, it used to be that way. Thanks to September 11, identity theft and rapidly multiplying layers of privacy laws, the First Amendment has found itself in serious jeopardy. Doubt me? Let’s take a look at some of the recent developments.

First, September 11. Not surprisingly, that attack changed things forever. Besides spawning the cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security, metal detectors and various other forms of security popped up like mushrooms after a rain, most notably in airports. Was some of this desirable? Absolutely…and even necessary. But in typical American fashion, some of it has been taken to the ultimate extreme. Such as a boy having his G.I. Joe doll confiscated at the airport security checkpoint because the doll possessed a prohibited ‘weapon’âÂ?¦a three-inch long plastic replica of an M-16 rifle. Or a pre-teen girl being arrested for bringing a ‘weapon’ to her school. What was her ‘weapon’? A paring knife that she was using in the cafeteria to cut chicken off the bone. This, of course, was the result of various ‘zero tolerence’ laws that are intended to keep weapons (notably guns) and drugs out of schools. Again, an admiral goal, but when common sense goes out the window, a reasonable goal becomes unreasonable.

The average person now winds up thinking twice before saying anything for fear that someone might overhear them and misconstrue their words. Instead of popping off or wisecracking for nothing more than the fun of it, you wind up saying nothing.

Privacy laws have had an effect far beyond what their creators intended. The original intent was to protect personal information from misuse. What resulted was far more invasive. For example, if you want a friend or relative to pick up a prescription for you, maybe they can and maybe they can’t. Depends on the drug. You may find it necessary to go down to the pharmacy in person so that you can sign a form authorizing a specific friend or relative to pick up the prescription for you. Since you drug yourself out of your sick bed to go sign the authorization, you might as well pick up the prescription while you’re there. Ergo, there’s no need for you to authorize anyone else to pick up the prescription since you’ve already done it. Makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Some hospitals are prohibiting florists from delivering flowers directly to a patient’s room because the delivery person might overhear information about the patient’s medical condition. Moving up to the truly insane, if one of your loved ones in taken to the hospital as the result of an auto accident or heart attack in a restaurant or whatever, you might not be able to find out if he or she is in a given hospital. All because your loved one, who might well be unconcious or in surgery, had not been considerate enough to sign a form authorizing the hospital to release the informationâÂ?¦before the accident or medical emergency occurred! It all depends on whether the hospital is determined to follow the letter of the law or not. I could go on, but I’d be writing forever just discussing the impact of privacy laws.

Let’s move on to photographs. After September 11, paranoia set in. If someone pointed a camera at a building, it was automatically assumed that the person with a camera was a terrorist photographing their next target. Despite the fact that it wasn’t true, the paranoia didn’t leave. We’ve gone from a country where tourists almost universally had cameras hanging from their necks and taking photos of almost anything in sight (while no one paid any attention to them) to one where anyone with a camera is looked on with suspicion. And if you think that’s bad, stick around. It’s actually a lot worse.

Recently, at a local Oktoberfest celebration, a 60-year-old man was arrested for taking “inappropriate ” photos of women and children. There are more than a few problems here. First, we don’t know what defines “inappropriate”. Second, what’s known as the “up-the-skirt ” law that allowed the arrest is wide open to abuse if anyone cares to do so.

Granted, the “up-the-skirt” law’s done a lot of good in stopping college students from videotaping their sexual activities and peeping toms who install spy cameras in employee or even public restrooms. Nanny cams have done a world of good in capturing and preventing child abuse by babysitters and on and on. But one more time, it can also be taken to the extreme when people cease to use good ol’ common sense. Due to the way the law is written, it’s up to a jury to decide whether a photo is “inappropriate” or not. In other words, 12 people get to decide whether or not the defendant intended to use the photo of a person in a public place to gratify his (or her) sexual desires.

Finally, according to a Bud Kennedy column in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Patrick Johnson (an assistant in the office of Texas State Representative Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston), when asked if it should be illegal to take pictures of the crowd at a public festival, actually said “Absolutely. They didn’t intend for anyone to take their picture.” Follow that line of logic and you’ll have to ask people at the State Fair of Texas to please step out of the way so you can take a photo of the MidwayâÂ?¦which is completely pointless unless you can show people at the Midway enjoying themselves. If you don’t want your picture taken, then don’t go out in public!

While no one wants photos taken anywhere to be used for sexual perversion, the only way to stop it is to make it illegal to take photos of any person under any conditions. Even then you can’t stop it all unless you confiscate and destroy every camera in existance. An extreme solution? You bet. But no more extreme than these laws already on the books that, when taken to their illogical extreme, can put you in jail for the simple act of triping the shutter release on your camera.

Think about it.

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