Opinion: On Bill of Rights anniversary, please reflect

As our nation prepares to observe the 225th anniversary of the ratification of the U.S. Bill of Rights, some of us might be excused for wondering if the individual liberties we have come to cherish will survive another two centuries.

Although such a thought might seem preposterous in a country that prides itself — and rightly so — as the shining example of freedom in the world, intolerance of opposing ideas and values has been simmering for decades, and it appears to have reached the boiling point more recently.

While there is nothing wrong with disagreeing on how to attack the issues we face, we Americans have divided ourselves into camps unlike any time since the Civil War. This division is being fed from both extremes of the political spectrum, fueled by ideologies about government as diametrically opposed as when our nation divided itself between North and South, ripping families apart in the process.

Our Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, traces its ratification back to Dec. 15, 1791. Those first additions to the newly minted Constitution laid the necessary groundwork for the freedom of expression needed to foster active citizen participation in government. A number of those rights also have served to protect us from an overzealous or even tyrannical government.

While all 10 amendments are vitally important, the First Amendment provides the basis for every other individual freedom.

Even though it is a sickening thought, ponder with me for a moment where we would be without those guaranteed rights of expression in America.

If our citizens could no longer speak out freely on important societal issues, the public’s participation in our democracy would crater, greatly increasing the possibility for corruption, despotism and cronyism.

If we didn’t feel safe to exercise our right to peaceably assemble, to march in protest and to petition our government for a redress of our grievances, the likelihood that we could continue to make progress toward a better society and a better world most certainly would be diminished.

If Americans no longer could freely make decisions about their religious life, they might quickly find themselves ostracized if they didn’t go to the “right” church or follow the same beliefs as the majority.

If our nation’s journalists could not continue to rely upon unfettered access to the decision-makers and the decision-making processes of government, public officials might be even more encouraged to serve narrow special interests rather than the common good.

And if we were barred from utilizing all those rights to question authority and scrutinize law enforcement and our court system, then our nation’s future surely would be in jeopardy.

Even though we Americans say we cherish the fundamental right to speak our minds — and most of us are not bashful about doing just that — it has become more difficult for a variety of reasons. Certainly, the burgeoning growth of social media, fake news sites and politicians who put “beliefs” before “facts” have all contributed to the division in our country.

Rather than quell speech we don’t like, the answer to this cacophony of voices actually is “more speech.” The marketplace of ideas is how we find common ground, even though it can often be a messy process.

So, will we ever be talking of our guaranteed right to free expression in the past tense? For our sake, let’s hope not, for it would certainly sound the death knell for the greatest experiment in self-government in the history of the world.

On this 225th anniversary of one of our nation’s finest hours, let’s celebrate the individual rights we have as Americans. And let’s pledge to make sure those rights survive attacks from those who believe “their” way is the “only” way.

— Doug Anstaett is executive director of the Kansas Press Association.