The U.S. Constitution Still Provides a Durable Framework | Opinion

The following is a lightly edited transcript of remarks made by Jeffrey Sikkenga during a Newsweek podcast debate on the U.S. Constitution. You can listen to the podcast here:

There's been a kind of rights race on both sides. On the Supreme Court, for example, both sides seem to be oftentimes engaged in the activity of creating new rights, or giving broader extension to existing rights than what were before. What was often understood—for example, freedom of speech—was that we have these rights for a purpose. And so the purpose limits, or puts an inherent character to, the rights. So what's the purpose of freedom of speech? Well, it's for citizens, as the First Amendment suggests, to petition their government for a redress grievances or to air their grievances and get a response. It has political purposes for citizens engaged in public discourse and action.

A close up of the First Printing
A close up of the First Printing of the Final Text of the United States Constitution is on display during a press preview at Sotheby's on September 17, 2021 in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

That's not how it's been understood for the last 55 or 60 years by something like the Supreme Court, which has untethered it from that purpose. So I think there's a long tradition in this country of actually understanding rights. The debate that we're most obviously seeing is the Second Amendment. Should we understand the second clause in light of the purposes of the first clause or not, and vice versa?

I think that, to some extent, that has been missing from the arguments when we just sort of say rights are in and of themselves the thing—as opposed to rights for what purpose: for example, freedom of speech, for what purpose. And then when we can articulate those purposes, we know what the inherent limitations are in the rights. But as the Founders understood them, at least rights contain within themselves proper moral limitations. It's just a matter of legislation enforcing that limitation based on the purpose of the right itself. So freedom of speech is not absolute, as the Court has recognized over and over again—even though sometimes it makes it sound like it is, but it clearly is not. There's all kinds of traditional limitations to freedom of speech that still operate.

Jeffrey Sikkenga is executive director of the Ashbrook Center and professor of political science at Ashland University.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.