25 September 2001

”Make no mistake; the American Revolution
 was not fought to obtain freedom, but to
 preserve the liberties that Americans
 already had as colonials. Independence
was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured
 in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators,
 but a reluctant last resort, to preserve
 “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” "

  - The Oxford History of the American People

Every day has its own little oddity to bring to the dinner table. A couple of days ago, the oddity at my table was a remark I made about a recently reported news item: as a result of their in-flight misconduct, three people were banned from air travel by two major airlines. I said I was glad to know these people weren’t likely to be on future flights, and I applauded the airlines for the courage to ban them. I said that since the airlines were private enterprises, they should be allowed to set rules for who can or cannot purchase tickets for travel. They should be applauded for keeping known troublemakers off the planes.

I was promptly met by a firestorm of criticism and invective from my spouse, a person whose opinions matter to me. The things my beloved said included casting aspersions on my loyalties as a patriotic American; my addictive, mindless agreement with filthy capitalists (these were the airlines); and my seeming determination to undermine the very foundations upon which this great country are built. Curious about the vehemence with which this outburst was delivered, I asked for help in making me understand where my logic was flawed. Why should an airline be forced to sell a ticket to a person who is a known, documented troublemaker?

My spouse offered, “If I get really drunk and abusive, and I decide to scream at or threaten the cabin crew, or defecate on a serving tray in full view of everyone in first class, just like that executive did a few years ago, that doesn’t give you the right to tell me I can’t fly any more. All you can do is remove me from the plane, have me arrested, and sue me for the expenses incurred as a result of my actions. You can’t stop me from flying, especially if I have to fly to make my living--that’s against the Constitution!”

I asked specifically which Constitutional right was being infringed by the ban. “Why, the freedom of movement, that’s which right. Nobody can stop me from traveling in the country--it’s against the law!”

I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances. I decided to go straight to the source.

Last spring, MightyWords offered a significant online writing competition, open to all U.S. citizens. The subject of the competition was the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the “Bill of Rights.” Contestants were invited to write about what the Bill of Rights meant to them in today’s world, in no fewer than 1,000 and no more than 5,000 words. The first prize was $15,000. The winning essays would be selected by Jonathan Kellerman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Richard Goodwin. The winning essays would be announced and published on Independence Day, July 4th.

To facilitate the contestants’ creative impulses, MightyWords provided additional material. There was a reprint of a brief history of the Bill of Rights by the American Civil Liberties Union, the complete text of the Bill of Rights as ratified on December 15, 1791, and a collection of “eMatter” essays titled “American Perspectives," with each Amendment considered by a contemporary thinker.

I read all the material, thinking I could easily write an award-winning essay. After all, once I picked an Amendment, the rest would come easily to me. I even went a step further, poring over my 1968 “College Outline Series” edition of the U.S. Constitution. I studied the origins, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, cases involving Federal legislation declared Unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Qualfications and Powers of government officials, and a list of when the states were admitted into the Union. I also read all of the “eMatter” essays.

The trouble was, by the time I finished reading all the source material, I came away from the research overwhelmed. The essay I’d hoped to write wasn’t going to be the snappy serving up of patriotic jingoism I’d expected. I realized I felt deeply about the things I read. I got closest to the truth in my opening statements: “The effect of the Bill of Rights is such an integral part of my life, so tightly woven into the fabric of my daily existence, I am not certain I can extricate myself from it in order to examine it as a thing apart from me. I feel as if I’ve been asked to examine the meaning and value of the air that moves in and out of my lungs.”

I may not have won $15,000 as the result of my writing, but I learned a whole lot more than I ever expected to about the underpinning principles of the U.S. government. Sitting at my dinner table, I was preparing to discuss and defend what freedoms and rights we as citizens actually possessed.

Amendment One says, “Congress that make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This means Congress can’t legislate religion, prevent free speech by individuals or the press, or prevent peaceful gatherings or the right to ask the Government to intervene in wrongs. Nothing at all dealing with the right to climb aboard a public vehicle in that one, so I moved on.

The only real, specific reference to travel came from Article Four of the Articles of Confederation, effective March 1, 1781. The Article says, “The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the different people of the different states in this union, the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states; and the people of each state shall have free engress and regress to and from any other state...” In other words, anyone has a right to enter or leave any state they like. The Article does not, however, address itself to the how of that entry or exit. Nothing at all about having a right to climb aboard a public vehicle to effect the desired travel. It’s only the right to come and go that gets addressed. How a citizen comes or goes is entirely up to the citizen and his or her means.

When I finished reading, I said that a refusal to sell me a ticket based on my own bad behavior did not reflect discrimination or a Constitutional infringement -- it merely meant the company was looking out for the safety and welfare of its passengers. They were behaving responsibly and in the public interest if they refused me admission, when they knew I was a troublemaker. I pointed out that nobody was saying the people who’d been banned couldn’t go anywhere they wanted -- they just couldn’t do it on the named airlines. I said the airlines weren’t infringing those people’s rights. They were protecting mine.

When the discussion ended, my beloved left me sitting alone at the table. I thought about the many recently reported cases of air rage, and how in several of those cases, the offenders had nearly succeeded in bringing about disasters. I wondered if anyone would want to see those same offenders sitting in the adjacent seat on a future flight.

Excuse me. I’m going to finish my Bill of Rights essay. I think I know now what I want to say.


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