Newspapers could educate public about First Amendment

Saturday, October 11, 2003

“It is from the First Amendment,” Justice William Brennan once told me, “that all our other liberties flow.” However, judging from the First Amendment Center’s recent annual State of the First Amendment Survey, one part of that section of the Bill of Rights is increasingly in disfavor with the public.

As Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center, reports: “The least popular First Amendment right continued to be freedom of the press — 46% said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, up from 42% last year.”

The First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech received mixed reactions from the survey of 1,000 Americans, conducted by the Center for Survey and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. While 74% strongly agree that Americans should be allowed to express unpopular opinions, only 26% strongly agree on the right to express views in public that might be offensive to religious groups (36% strongly disagree). And only 18% strongly agree that it’s OK to say in public what might be offensive to racial groups (46% strongly disagree).

I doubt that most Americans know Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion that “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free only for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.”

The public’s disquiet about freedom of the press and its own freedom of thought is not surprising in view of the failure of our educational systems to spend much time on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights, let alone the Constitution. “The Civic Mission of Schools,” a study from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the University of Maryland’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, reveals: “Most normal civic education today comprises only a single course on government,” with little emphasis on “the rights and responsibilities of citizens.”

I recently asked my graduate journalism students at New York University, in my course on First Amendment Current Problems, how many, throughout their education, had taken courses in the Bill of Rights or the Constitution. Only three hands were raised.

When I’ve talked to newspaper editors and others in the business about the press’ need to remedy the failures of educators to teach Americans — in and out of school — their fundamental rights and liberties, I’m told that would be too much like “inside baseball,” particularly if we seemed to be focusing too much on freedom of the press as self-promotion.

But Justice Brennan was right. The First Amendment does interconnect with all the others. How is an American able to protest government violations of the Fourth Amendment, for example, without freedom of speech and the press?

In schools, the audience is already there and eager, as I’ve found in speaking to elementary and high school students. “The Civic Mission of Schools” study cites research that children start to develop social responsibility and interest in how we go about governing ourselves before the age of nine.

A few years ago in Miami, I was asked to speak to a large assembly of high school students, mostly African-American and Hispanic. Their teachers told me, before I started, not to be disappointed at the students’ indifference, “because all they mainly care about is clothes and music.”

At the end of the hour, I got a standing ovation, not because of my eloquence, but because the stories I told of how we won, and then had to fight to keep, our liberties — including free speech, press and thought — made them realize how and why they are Americans.

If newspapers were not only to regularly go into schools, but also arrange town hall meetings on current First Amendment issues in the town or city or country — linking the discussion to the tumultuous history of our First Amendment — they would be vividly performing acts of “civic journalism.”

And for the pages of the newspapers, I would suggest editors look at Linda Monk’s The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide to the Constitution (Hyperion). It is the clearest and liveliest account — with stories and illustrations — I’ve ever seen of what Justice William O. Douglas called “the conscience” of the nation. Monk, a Harvard Law School graduate and winner of two American Bar Association awards for her previous tome, The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide — on my desk alongside The Encyclopedia of Jazz — writes so compellingly that, if The Words We Live By were to be selectively serialized in newspapers, American history might even become popular. More would discover, among other surprises, why British prime minister William Gladstone said that our Constitution was “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.”

Published with the permission of Nat Hentoff. Originally posted on the Editor & Publisher Web site on Oct. 7. Hentoff is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher and also writes forThe Village Voice in New York.

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