John Ashcroft: unintentional First Amendment promoter

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Each year the Playboy Foundation, having benefited from the First Amendment, announces its Hugh Hefner First Amendment Awards. They’re serious enough to have attracted such prestigious judges as: Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union; Judith Krug, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom; and Floyd Abrams, a frequent attorney for the First Amendment before the Supreme Court.

Previous winners have included: Anthony Lewis, longtime New York Times civil liberties expert; Studs Terkel, oral historian of Americans Speaking Freely; and John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. In 1980, I won the award for my book The First Freedom: The Tumultuous History of Free Speech.

Having received my ballot for the 2004 awards, I’ve decided to make my vote public in case the current panel of judges doesn’t fully realize the source of the present and clear dangers to the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.

No one in modern times has done more than Attorney General John Ashcroft — though unintentionally — to inspire Americans to preserve and protect not only the First Amendment, but also the parts of the Bill of Rights that are interconnected with it. Therefore, I am voting for Mr. Ashcroft to get one of Playboy’s First Amendment awards next year.

One of his USA Patriot Act’s chilling effects on the exercise of free speech and dissent was cited recently by Dan Kennedy in the Boston Phoenix: “It’s not that you’re being watched. It’s that you might be, and that you have no way of knowing whether you are or not.” We have never been more under surveillance than now.

As of December, 216 cities and towns across the nation, and across the political spectrum — along with the state legislatures of Alaska, Hawaii and Vermont — have proclaimed themselves “civil liberties safe zones.” In protesting sections of the Patriot Act and subsequent Bush administration executive orders that invade the Bill of Rights, these citizens have passed Bill of Rights Defense Resolutions, instructing their members of Congress to hold the attorney general accountable for diminishing their liberties.

These resolutions continue the legacy of the Committees of Correspondence — started in Boston in 1767 by Samuel Adams and other patriots to alert the 13 colonies to British abuses of their rights — and have increasingly stirred members of Congress to co-sponsor bills to roll back parts of the Patriot Act.

These Bill of Rights Defense Resolutions also put local and state police — from each city, town and state — on notice that they are required to inform the citizens when these law-enforcement agents are involved in implementing Mr. Ashcroft’s edicts.

The attorney general, irritated by this grass-roots movement, has charged the organizers with spreading misinformation. To correct this, he went on a 30-city tour in August and September to educate the populace — speaking, however, only before law-enforcement audiences.

The effect of Mr. Ashcroft’s tour? During it, 28 more cities passed resolutions to become civil liberties safe zones.

The reason, therefore, that Mr. Ashcroft clearly merits not only a Playboy First Amendment Award, but also similar hosannas from the American Civil Liberties Union, is that — however unwittingly — he has done a great deal to make sure that fewer Americans continue to be left behind in their education about the Constitution and what it takes to safeguard our liberties from outside, and within, our borders.

As a visiting professor of journalism at New York University, I have found that some of the brightest students have only a hazy notion of sections of the Bill of Rights.

I was not surprised at the results of a study by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the University of Maryland’s Center for Information on Civic Learning and Engagement, which revealed that “most formal civic education today in secondary schools comprises only a single course on government.” And how many courses on the Constitution?

I expect there will be more such courses now.

As the president has said, “Ignorance of American history and civics weakens our sense of citizenship … Our children should know about the debates of the Constitutional Convention.”

Since the president has publicly lauded the attorney general for doing a “fabulous job,” the president should himself also read “The Debate on the Constitution, Parts 1 and 2” [The Library of America, New York].

As Republican Dick Armey, a libertarian critic of Mr. Ashcroft’s, said on leaving Congress: “We the people had better keep our eye . . . on our government. Not out of contempt or disrespect, but out of a sense of guardianship. For heaven’s sake, don’t give up on freedom!”

The attorney general has made these words ring across the land.

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. Originally posted on The Washington Times Web site on Dec. 15. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes for The Village Voice in New York.