Sunday, September 7, 2003

There are countries, including democracies, in which citizens are punished by the government for “politically incorrect” offensive speech. This nation is unique in the world for the protections we all share in the First Amendment’s freedom of speech, and of the press.

After all, in America, without the First Amendment, how could we effectively protest against government violations of the individual liberties guaranteed us by the rest of the Bill of Rights?

However, as annual reports released by the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center reveal, Americans are very divided on how much freedom of speech and of the press should be allowed.

In this year’s recently released State of the First Amendment survey — conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut — 46 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed believe the American press has too much freedom. That’s up from last year’s 42 percent. To me, this reaction indicates that the news media is failing to provide the citizenry with the pivotal lessons on how crucial a free press has been in safeguarding our constitutional democracy (including the exposure of the horrors of slavery and the workplace abuses that led to child labor laws and other protections of American workers).

American history is an increasingly marginal subject in our school systems. Who — if not the media — will tell how we gained our rights, and what has been done to keep them? The press could actually perform a major public service with a series on the history and contents of the Constitution. Such information is sorely needed: In this year’s survey, only 2 percent could name all five of the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment (freedom of press, speech, religion, the right to petition the government and right to assembly and association).

As for our respect for the Americans’ free-speech rights, 74 percent strongly agree that people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions. However, only 26 percent strongly agree that we should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups (36 percent strongly disagree). And, only 18 percent strongly agree that people should be allowed to say in public things that might seem offensive to racial groups (47 percent strongly disagree).

But Americans, as the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, cannot honestly say they support the First Amendment unless they also support its guarantee of free speech for ideas they hate. So long as we are free to use our speech to rebut speech that we find offensive, even hateful, we are all protected by the First Amendment.

As I am convinced that the Bill of Rights should be taught in historical depth in our schools, I find especially troubling in this year’s survey that only 38 percent disagreed with this proposal:

“Public school officials should be allowed to prohibit high school students from expressing their opinions about the war on school property during the period of active military combat.” And, only 31 percent strongly disagreed with this recommendation: “Public school officials should be allowed to prohibit high school students from wearing T-shirts, armbands or other insignia expressing their opinions about the war on school property during a period of active military combat.”

In 1943, during World War II, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson — who was to become the chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of the German Nazis — ruled that the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses in West Virginia had been unconstitutionally expelled from their public schools (and threatened to be sent to reform schools) for refusing to pledge allegiance and salute the flag. The parents of those children had also been threatened with prosecution for contributing to the delinquency of their kids.

In sending those children back to school, Jackson — in West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette — wrote a definition of Americanism that should be delivered every year in school assemblies throughout the land, and posted at the entrances of the Justice Department and both houses of Congress:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

And, he emphasized, the fact that boards of education “are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount principles of our government as mere platitudes.”

That Supreme Court decision came down when we were fighting Hitler, when wartime patriotism could have and sometimes overshadowed our individual rights. I supported that war and our most recent one, which ended the need for mass graves in Iraq.

I also support the First Amendment, which empowers me with the freedom to say so, and you to disagree.

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