Reflection: Freedom vs. security and the First Amendment

By Nicole Ziege, F/G Scholar

When a country like the United States declares war, balancing freedom and security is one of its greatest challenges because while the government needs to maintain the freedoms of its people, it also wants to ensure national security. In my opinion, there are two types of national security: national security in terms of securing victory during the war with enough supplies and man power, and national security in terms of preventing foreign threats against potential foreign threats.

One First Amendment court case that discussed the potential threat to national security with the use of freedom of the press was Abrams vs. the United States (1919). While war raged with Germany on Russian soil, six Russian immigrants were involved in releasing thousands of pamphlets in an act of protest against the war, encouraging the general strike of producing munition necessary for the war efforts. The pamphlets were dropped from a building window in New York City, with one written in English and the other written in Yiddish, according to the case summary.

The defendants were found guilty in district court with sentences from 3 to 20 years in prison, and when their case was appealed to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court found them guilty in a 7-2 ruling of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 through the ‘clear and present danger test.’ Although it was unclear if anyone had actually read the pamphlets that were thrown out the window, the very act of throwing them out of the window was enough to convict the immigrants of violating the Espionage Act in an effort to maintain national security.

The government viewed the act of throwing the pamphlets out of the window as a national security threat because it was an effort to persuade people to stop making the necessary amounts of ammunition for the war effort, which would have inhibited the country’s ability to secure victory in the war if it had been successful. However, it is not certain whether or not the pamphlets actually persuaded anyone to stop making ammunition, which made me think that it was not as dangerous to national security as the government made it seem.

It is the government’s job to protect the rights of the people, but war creates a blurry line between protecting rights and freedoms and ensuring national security. One example of this blurry line includes the Patriot Act, which was passed under George W. Bush’s administration by Congress in 2001. The Patriot Act was passed as a means to combat terrorism when the United States entered the Iraq War following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It allows federal officials to have greater authority in tracking and intercepting communications for foreign intelligence tracking and for law enforcement. However, there was debate about whether the Act restricted the freedoms of citizens in the name of combating and obstructing terrorism.

Restricting constitutional freedom for the sake of security could have been the argument for why the protesters were arrested for protesting and marching to city hall in Columbia, South Carolina on March 2, 1961, as seen in the case Edwards vs. South Carolina (1961). The case dealt with the event of nearly 200 African American high school and college students marching six blocks down to the state capitol building to protest racial inequality and segregation.

I say that this could have been the case with this particular court case because one of the arguments for why the protesters were arrested was from the city manager, who said he became worried that the situation of the protesters would become dangerous and that traffic would be disrupted. Security in this case could mean securing the peace of the city, which was why the 187 protesters were first arrested for breaching the peace. However, that doesn’t excuse the Columbia city government for arresting the protesters because they were not disrupting the peace in my opinion. They were arrested for voicing their unpopular opinions, which is not a valid reason for arresting and stopping people from their constitutional right to protest and assemble.

Regarding people’s constitutional rights to protest and assemble, that was the basis for why the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Snyder vs. Phelps (2011). The church protested the funeral of a U.S. Marine who was killed in the line of duty. When the parent of the soldier saw the protests on television, he sued the Westboro Baptist Church for emotionally damaging his family and breaching his privacy. While I find the act of protesting soldiers’ funerals absolutely repulsive, we cannot hinder on the rights of people who share unpopular opinions, as long as they are protesting and voicing their opinions peacefully.

The last case that we talked about regarding people almost being restricted from voicing their unpopular opinions was Tinker vs. Des Moines (1969). Two students in middle school decided to protest the Vietnam War by wearing black armbands. The administration of the Des Moines Independent School District heard about the plan and the armbands were prohibited. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of the students, which helped to validate the constitutional freedom of expression and speech for students. Personally, I think that the armbands were banned because the students held unpopular views against the Vietnam War, and hindering the rights of people to voice their unpopular opinions is dangerous to a functioning democracy.

All in all, it was interesting to find commonalities between the First Amendment court cases and what they deal with in terms of protesting, voicing unpopular opinions and the balance between national security and constitutional and personal freedom.

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Nicole Ziege

Nicole Ziege is a honors student at WKU. She is majoring in journalism and minoring in history.

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