- - Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

Congress shall 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.

Passed by Congress, along with 11 other amendments, on September 25, 1789, and ratified as one of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution on December 15, 1791, it sits atop our nation’s Bill of Rights.

The First Amendment is the constitutional provision that safeguards the constellation of rights essential to democratic self-government. It protects the right to the free exercise of religion and the right to avoid being coerced by government into holding beliefs on religion. It also protects the freedoms of speech and press, of assembly, and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The Framers understood the value of freedom of speech well before the passage of the First Amendment. In 1783, George Washington wrote “if Men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences, that can invite the consideration of Mankind; reason is of no use to us — the freedom of Speech may be taken away — and, dumb & silent we may be led, like sheep, to the Slaughter.”

In 1722, Benjamin Franklin wrote “Without Freedom of Thought, there can be no such Thing as Wisdom; and no such Thing as publick Liberty, without Freedom of Speech[.]” Later, Thomas Jefferson would remark, “to preserve the freedom of the human mind then & freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom; for as long as we may think as we will, & speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”

Today, the legal protection offered by the First Amendment is more robust than at any other time in our nation’s history. And, yet, there is a sense that amongst some segments of the population the First Amendment’s fulsome protection of freedom of speech is falling out favor. In the Newseum’s 2017 State of the First Amendment study, they found that almost one-quarter of respondents (22.5 percent) reported that they thought the First Amendment’s freedoms go too far. Forty-three percent of their survey respondents felt that colleges should have the right to ban controversial speakers on college campuses.

According to political scientist John Sides, “Forty years ago, young college students were the most tolerant of controversial speech. That is no longer the case.” Jeffrey Herbst, the outgoing CEO of the Newseum, in a recent white paper wrote that young people have carved out an alternate understanding of free expression, what he calls “the right to non-offensive speech.” He goes on to explain:

“This perspective essentially carves out an exception to the right of free speech by trying to prevent expression that is seen as particularly offensive to an identifiable group, especially if that collective is defined in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual identity. The crisis is not one of the very occasional speakers thrown off campus, however regrettable that is; rather, it is a generation that increasingly censors itself and others, largely silently but sometimes through active protest.”

When declines in free speech values are paired with a broader trend showing declining belief in democratic forms of government, this raises alarm bells for those of us dedicated to civic education and constitutional literacy. A 2015 study published by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk “found that citizens give less and less importance to living in a democracy. They have increasingly negative views about key democratic institutions. Most worryingly of all, they are more and more open to illiberal alternatives.”

This is the third special section published by the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign. In light of recent trends and events, we wanted to use this as an opportunity to reflect on the value of freedom of speech and to confront some of the critical issues facing free speech today. The articles that follow are designed to educate, inspire, and make you think.

The National Constitutional Literacy Campaign is a coalition of broad and diverse organizations, including nonpartisan nonprofits, for-profit entities, and groups from both the left and right who believe in the fundamental importance of constitutional literacy and civics education. If you’re interested in joining the coalition or supporting our efforts, please contact Julie Silverbrook at [email protected]

Julie Silverbrook is the Executive Director of The Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource.org), a nonprofit organization devoted to increasing understanding, facilitating research, and encouraging discussion of the U.S. Constitution by connecting individuals with the documentary history of its creation, ratification, and amendment. Julie holds a J.D. from William & Mary Law School. In 2015, she and venture capitalist Chuck Stetson founded the National Constitutional Literacy Campaign.

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