Viewpoint: Dr. Larry Burriss, ‘Absolute’



Here’s a question for you: does the First Amendment mean what it says? Or perhaps a better question is, Does the First Amendment mean what you or I say it means?
Some people want to take what’s called the “absolutist” position. They take what the words say, and for them, that’s what the amendment means.
But, the First Amendment provides for six different freedoms, not just one or two: freedom from a state religion, freedom to practice your religion, freedom to peaceably assemble, freedom to petition the government, and the two we are probably most familiar with, speech and press.
Some people, lately, are taking an absolutist position with regard to freedom of religion, saying the state cannot limit the practice of religion in any way.


Well, actually, this absolutist position, for any of the freedoms, has never held a majority of the people, or of the courts.
So, if you take an absolutist position with regard to freedom of religion, are you also willing to take a similar absolutist position with regard to speech or press? My guess is, probably not.
After all, if the government has absolutely no control over the press, then laws regarding child pornography are invalid. You could publish the names of covert intelligence agents, any and all government secret plans, and any kind of false and misleading statements in advertising messages.
So just how far are religious absolutists willing to go in support of the First Amendment?

Larry Burriss, a professor in Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication and president of the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame, welcomes the crowd before the induction ceremonies at the Tennessee Association of Broadcasters conference in Murfreesboro for the Tennessee Journalism Hall of Fame. (MTSU photo by Andrew Oppmann)

But, some people might argue, aren’t some of these freedoms more important than others? That may certainly be the case, but which ones?
As you might expect, I would argue that speech and press are the most important. After all, free press and speech allow us to know when the government is suppressing any of the other freedoms.
Of course, this kind of thinking leads to an interesting paradoxical question: is the statement, “nothing is absolute,” itself absolute? Think about it.
I’m Larry Burriss.