Panel: Public needs better First Amendment education

Tuesday, July 11, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The public needs to be better educated about the First Amendment and the freedoms it protects, Mary Frances Berry said yesterday during a panel discussion at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.

“There’s a tremendous amount of misunderstanding (among the American public) of what the First Amendment implies and what it means,” said Berry, a history and law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “Americans don’t know any American history. Students who are coming out of college don’t know any American history. And if they knew some, they would know about the history of the First Amendment.”

Berry joined several other panelists and moderator John Seigenthaler to discuss the First Amendment Center’s 2000 State of the First Amendment survey.

The survey found that a majority of Americans believe that the press has too much freedom, that public speech offensive to racial or religious groups should not be allowed, that violence in the media contributes to violence in real life and that the Ten Commandments should be posted in public schools.

If Americans had a better grasp of history, Berry said, “then they would not answer these questions in such a fashion that would jeopardize the First Amendment.”

Part of the problem, First Amendment attorney and author Bruce Sanford added, is that many people are close-minded and refuse to listen to opinions that contradict their own. “Hardly anybody likes to argue anymore,” he said. Instead, Sanford said, people choose to ignore, rather than discuss, opinions that offend them.

Panelist Susan Wiltshire, a classics professor at Vanderbilt University and author of Greece, Rome and the Bill of Rights, said that this type of intolerance could be combated by emphasizing the importance debate has played in world history.

“My temperament is to write off anyone who doesn’t agree with me,” Wiltshire said. “But my sense of history and sort of respect for what has worked in history reminds me that we (as a people) keep talking to each other. And our young people need to have those examples of what has worked in this country.”

Author and journalist Mark Shaw added that we must protect all speech — even speech we don’t like — in order to protect our own speech.

“To protect the best of us, we have to protect the worst of us,” Shaw said. “(To me,) the burning of the flag is despicable, but I think it’s the standard bearer for freedom of speech.”

Wiltshire added that it is important to protect the rights of the minority.

“In a democracy the majority does not need protection,” she said. “It’s minorities who those provisions of the Bill of Rights were meant to protect.”

Despite the public’s lack of understanding of the First Amendment, Berry said, the survey does reveal that American society is still a tolerant society.

“There is this sort of fundamental, bedrock notion of tolerating each other which is part of the American tradition,” she said. The survey reveals that “even with our differences, we must tolerate each other a great deal, because otherwise, looking at those numbers, we would often be at each other’s throats even more than we are now.”

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