The First Amendment: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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.

These familiar, though frequently ignored or misapplied, words comprise the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America . They should, of course, be well known to every American, for they form, along with the next nine amendments, the Bill of Rights, which lays down in detail those ways in which the federal government may not infringe on our God-given rights to life, liberty, and property.

Intuitively it should be clear that the words of the First Amendment are not by any means well known to all Americans. To take just one common example, how many people do you know who believe that the phrase 'separation of church and state' appears therein?

For more definitive proof of Americans' lack of knowledge of, and appreciation for, the First Amendment, one need only examine the results of a recent study by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which surveyed high school students, teachers, and principals with regard to their knowledge and understanding of the amendment. The survey results were also compared to those of other recent Knight Foundation surveys of adults in the general population. The results are, for the most part, quite disheartening to any friend of liberty.

To get things started off with a bang, let's just take a look at the one question that encompasses all the others. When asked, after being given a chance to read the First Amendment in full, if they agree or disagree with the statement 'The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees,' 35 percent of high school students either strongly or mildly agreed.

Now you might argue that high school students are more concerned with the freedoms to drive, date, and drink than with those of speech and the press, so perhaps we should not be so concerned with their response to the question. After all, once they have matured into adulthood, they will come to recognize how important the rights protected by the First Amendment are'or will they?

Among the adults working in the same high schools where these less-than-stellar defenders of freedom sit for eight hours a day, 29 percent of teachers and 24 percent of principals also agreed that the First Amendment is too generous. Lest you think that such ideas are confined to the education bureaucracy, please note that among the general population, 30 percent of adults joined the chorus in favor of cutting back on freedom. Is it any wonder, then, that the youth of today have such little regard for the freedoms for which our Founding Fathers fought, and in some cases, died?

It doesn't get much better when we get down to specifics, either.

When given a chance to agree or disagree with the statement 'People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions,' 83 percent of students agreed. Faculty, principals, and even adults in general did significantly better, with 97, 99, and 95 percent, respectively, agreeing. Nevertheless, isn't it a little frightening that not a single one of these groups was in complete agreement with that? No doubt most of them are thinking that such things as racist and neo-Nazi opinions ought not be permitted. What they fail to comprehend, of course, is that allowing any opinion to be prohibited arbitrarily leads inevitably to the proscription of other opinions, until only the line specified by the powers that be may be uttered.

(Some closet believers in this under the present circumstances, though they would never admit it, include those who consider 'near treasonous' Ted Kennedy's recent speech to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies'one of the few great speeches ever made by the ultraliberal senator'in which he lambasted the Bush administration's entire Iraq misadventure and demanded that the U.S. disengage as fully and as quickly as possible from the 'quagmire,' as he termed it.)

A full 74 percent of high school students disagreed that '[p]eople should be allowed to burn or deface the American flag as a political statement,' a reverence for a piece of cloth almost certainly instilled in them from years of reciting the socialist-created Pledge of Allegiance day after day. This was little different from the opinion among teachers (70 percent), principals (75 percent), or adults at large (74 percent). Since this could be excused on the basis of simple patriotism, it's probably not as serious as some of the other responses.

Here is a particularly frightening statistic: Only 51 percent of students agreed that '[n]ewspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.' All of the adults surveyed agreed in greater numbers, but even then, 20 percent of teachers and principals, and 30 percent of adults as a whole, thought that our exalted rulers should be given the power to decide what gets into the periodicals of America. Thirty-two percent of high schoolers also think that the press has too much freedom, and in this they actually improved on the adults, who concurred at rates ranging from 38 to 42 percent.

On the other hand, students could perhaps be slightly forgiven for this given that only four percent of them are foolish enough to believe that journalists tell the truth 'all the time,' whereas 32 percent believe that journalists tell the truth 'little of the time' or 'not at all.' This should not be surprising after the recent Dan Rather flap and other high-profile instances of fabricated stories in newsrooms across America, and in fact it probably speaks well of the students. If nothing else, they have more discernment than their teachers, among whom just 15 percent said that journalists seldom or never tell the truth, while 4 percent also concurred that journalists are 100 percent truthful. (Principals and all adults were apparently not asked this question.)

When it comes to issues that hit home with high school students, they score significantly better than their elders.

'Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive' garnered 70 percent approval from students versus 58 percent approval among faculty, 43 percent among principals, and 59 percent among adults as a whole. One suspects this has much to do with adults' condemnation of the popular music du jour'condemnation which is not without merit but which is guaranteed to rankle kids.

In a similar vein, 58 percent of students said that they 'should be allowed to report controversial issues in their student newspapers without the approval of school authorities.' Naturally, school authorities didn't take too kindly to the suggestion, with only 39 percent of teachers and 25 percent of principals (and 43 percent of all adults) agreeing. Clearly in a private school, however, the administrators have every right to determine what gets published in student newspapers, just as the editor of the New York Times can decide what gets published in his paper. Even when it comes to public schools, the administrators are there to provide some guidance to their charges and not to allow them to create unnecessary discord by, for example, publishing a pro-Ku Klux Klan article in the student newspaper. Furthermore, the First Amendment has nothing to say about what local public schools may or may not do with regard to freedom of speech; it merely prohibits Congress from interfering with it. This appears to be more of a case of teenagers' rebellion against authority than a true understanding of press freedom.

Overall, then, the outlook for the First Amendment is far from rosy. Far too many Americans, whether in or out of school, haven't the foggiest idea what the First Amendment says, why it says it, or why the rights guaranteed in the amendment are so central to the preservation of our liberty. Why is this?

First, the overwhelming majority of Americans have been educated in government schools. If you were in charge of shaping the minds of future generations, would you teach them how to defeat you and your grand designs for the future? Well, neither would the government; and since it has a near monopoly on shaping the minds of future generations, it's only natural that most people haven't a clue as to what their constitutional rights are nor how they should be exercised and defended.

Second, American culture has for years de-emphasized serious thought and study, to the point that few Americans know the First Amendment from the seventh-inning stretch, but vast numbers can instantly spout off the names of the stars of Friends. As long as they have their bread and circuses, why should they care whether or not some government agents raid a little newspaper office in Montana because the editor dared to run an article critical of some government policy? Better to have the government restrict the press than to have the press interrupt your soap opera with a news bulletin.

Both the education system and the culture need to change before we will experience a sea change in Americans' understanding and cherishing of their freedoms, including those safeguarded by the First Amendment. The education system needs to be shorn of all government control, and the culture'well, that's another matter entirely, one to which no simple, quick solution presents itself. One thing is for certain, though: Government is our enemy in both arenas because increased awareness and defense of freedom means decreased power for government, which in turn means the folks in charge aren't going to let Americans' apathy for liberty go away without a fight.

Fortunately, while the rest of the Constitution has been shredded, we still have most of our First Amendment rights intact. The best way to win the battle and restore the fire of liberty to the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens is simply to exercise those rights, for the pen truly is mightier than the sword.

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Michael Tennant's picture
Columns on STR: 30

Michael Tennant is a software developer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.