All 5 freedoms played election roles

Friday, January 23, 2009

WASHINGTON — On his first day in office, President Barack Obama signed a directive to make government records more open to the public, capping an election year in which the First Amendment was front and center — and also out front and central.

On Inauguration Day, the amendment’s 45 words loomed large over the
Pennsylvania Avenue presidential parade route for the first time, carved in
Tennessee marble on a 74-foot high plaque on the front of the Newseum, visible
to millions of inaugural visitors.


But all five freedoms in the First Amendment had their own moments in Obama’s
journey to the Oval Office:


Freedom of religion: The much-debated mix of church and state was
involved from the start of the primary elections.


Then-candidate Obama faced rumors that questioned his Christian faith and
declared him a “secret” Muslim. Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, felt
compelled to make a public declaration that a Romney presidency would “serve no
one religion, no one group, no one cause.” And when former Ark. Gov. Mike
Huckabee openly displayed his evangelical-Christian credentials in the early
Iowa primary, he moved briefly to a leading position.


Just as the presidential campaign peaked in the autumn, 33 pastors in 20
states challenged Internal Revenue Service regulations that ban election
politicking from the pulpit by religious groups with nonprofit status.


Religious controversy arose anew just recently when conservative Rev. Rick
Warren was asked to deliver the inaugural invocation. The criticism was muted
somewhat by Obama’s asking Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, a vocal gay-rights
leader, to offer a prayer at Sunday’s kick-off concert at the Lincoln


And a few critics even attacked the tradition of concluding the presidential
oath of office with the phrase, “So help me God.” But a lawsuit on the issue
failed to gain legal traction in a federal courtroom.


Freedom of speech: From televised debates and campaign attacks
unfettered by government control, to party-pleasing declarations at political
conventions, to protests outside George Bush’s ranch in Texas, Americans
exercised their rights — and lung power — with abandon.


But voicing individual and collective minds didn’t come without problems.
Periodically came news reports of individuals detained (and often later
released) at rallies on vague “security concerns” — often for little more than
wearing T-shirts, shouting slogans or carrying signs that seemed more impolite
than threatening.


Freedom of press: Journalists were criticized by many as favoring the
eventual winner. Both Obama and Sen. John McCain endorsed a proposed federal
“shield law” for journalists. But the free-press headline this year likely
belongs to the implosion of much of the nation’s traditional print press, beset
by precipitate declines in profits, unprecedented staff cuts and loss of readers
as Web-based competitors and bloggers saw a corresponding rise in reach and


USA Today reported that for the first time, the major news portals on
the Web, including,, and AOL News, all streamed
images of inaugural festivities to millions of users.


Obama’s campaign likely changed the nature of news reporting about
presidential campaigns for years to come, combining a hugely successful blend of
Internet fundraising with Web-based campaign “events” and an online team of
supporters. The effort circumvented conventional media in getting out Obama’s
message and countering rumors and political attacks.


And at both political conventions, in Denver and St. Paul, journalists were
swept up — some said “targeted” — along with protesters in pre-emptive police
raids, only to see charges not filed or dropped when the conventions ended.


Freedoms of assembly and petition: These freedoms — to assemble with
like-minded people and to seek government change — took on a uniquely historic
quality this year, beginning with early echoes of the civil rights movement and
ending in the election of the first African-American president. And the Obama
campaign produced a new twist on petition: its “Citizen’s Briefing Book,” with
more than 125,000 users submitting some 44,000 ideas and casting more than 1.4
million votes on issues they thought most important. The best-rated ideas will
be delivered to the president.


Many issues beyond these First Amendment concerns arose in the 2009 election.
But it was this amendment — unique to the United States — that guaranteed the
nation could and will vigorously debate its concerns openly, without government
control or penalty, in person, online or in print.


And that’s also worth parading down Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate at least
once every four years.


Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First
Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: E-mail:


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