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Egypt’s first steps toward liberty remind us of our own

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Gene Policinski
February 19, 2011

A small group, using the latest technology, excites fellow citizens with the concepts and possibilities of freedom after years of battling a repressive regime.


As the protests grow more visible and vocal, armed representatives of the current regime try to interrupt, intimidate or imprison those calling for freedom, for an end to domination by a despot.


Against all odds, this populist revolt succeeds. The seeds of democracy have been sown.


Sound familiar?


In 2011, it’s a story involving bloggers, Tweets and demonstrations in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast that we’ve watched unfold with amazing rapidity. But for Americans, that same path to freedom harkens back to pamphleteers, village greens, Liberty Trees, 1776 and our own Declaration of Independence and Revolutionary War.


Sure, many of the particulars are different. But in the end, both are stories of the people demanding change, insisting on freedom from an oppressive government and—we hope for Egypt, Tunisia and other countries—charting their own path toward protecting religious liberty.


Freedom of speech, press and the rights of assembly and petition could not have been more in the forefront in both movements. And as Egyptian leaders and citizens grapple with their nation’s future, expansion of religious liberty and the new role of religion in Egyptian government and public life will be among the first major considerations.


So what First Amendment lessons can those in Cairo take from America’s ongoing experiment as a free nation?


First and foremost, our nation’s founders took the concept of a union of church and state off the table, blunting the legacy of centuries of European strife over the mix of faith and government. The Founders used the first 16 of the First Amendment’s 45 words to set out two ideas: Government may not “establish” an official religion, nor may it interfere with individuals’ “free exercise” of their faith.


The remaining words of the First Amendment protect citizens’ right to speak and write as they wish, and individually or in a group to seek peaceably “a redress of grievances.” From Boston Harbor’s pre-Revolution Tea Party to the current tea-party movement, those principles have helped keep the nation on track and provided protection for dissenters, advocates and critics.


All five freedoms have sustained the Founders’ vision of “a marketplace of ideas,” where Americans can debate, discuss and decide how our shared version of freedom should work.


Worth noting as we watch Egypt’s first steps toward liberty is that we didn’t exactly get it right from the beginning. It took us some 13 years after the Declaration we celebrate each July 4 to adopt the Constitution, and two more years before we ratified in 1791 the First Amendment and nine others that make up the Bill of Rights. Then, just seven years after that, Congress adopted the Alien and Sedition Acts—providing jail terms for those openly criticizing the House, Senate or president.


Even today Americans are still debating how our basic freedoms apply: the presence of religion in public life and public schools, whether protesters can use military funerals as a staging ground for their message, the role of a free press in a Twitter society, and many more issues.


Perhaps the greatest First Amendment lesson for all to keep in mind is that many voices, not fewer, in the marketplace of ideas—despite what may initially appear to be disorder—ultimately will provide the greatest stability.


Political liberty is powered and preserved by individual freedom, and dissent will find an outlet, protected or not—particularly in a 24-7, Internet-saturated world.


We should all consider the words of John Seigenthaler, my colleague and the founder of the First Amendment Center, who observed in 1991 on the 200th anniversary of the First Amendment’s ratification that “freedom of expression is never safe, never secure, but always in the process of being made safe and secure.”


May that process continue everywhere.


Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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