We don’t teach — or encourage — First Amendment freedoms in school

Sunday, September 23, 2007

“Freedom” may be just another word — to borrow a lyric from Janis Joplin — to about one in four Americans, who don’t see any of the five freedoms of the First Amendment as “essential” in their lives.

The “State of the First Amendment 2007” report, issued Sept. 11 by the First Amendment Center, asked American adults how important their basic freedoms were to them – whether religion, speech, press, assembly and petition were essential, important or not important.

Just 74% said it was essential to have “the right to practice the religion of your choice,” down from 81% in 1997 and 83% in 2002. The right to “speak freely about whatever you want” saw a similar drop, to 66% from 72% 10 years ago and 75% five years ago.

Numbers were even lower for those seeing as essential in their personal lives “the right to be informed by a free press” (62%) and for assembly and petition (60%).

Overall, 25% say that “The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.” And 28% would let a majority decide whether or not a particular religious belief is too extreme or “fringe” to deserve constitutional protections.

The results don’t necessarily mean we’re ready to throw the Bill of Rights out the window tomorrow: Each freedom scored above 90% when “important” was added to “essential.” But finding that Americans rate our cornerstone personal freedoms as anything less than vital to American life ought to get our attention — and action.

A second new survey, of Americans under age 18, doesn’t offer the comfort that things will get better on their own anytime soon. The “Future of the First Amendment” poll, funded by the Knight Foundation, found that despite increases in the number of First Amendment classes from 2004 through 2006, nearly three-fourths of high school students still don’t know how they feel about the First Amendment, or they take it for granted.

Should we be surprised by all of this? Not really. In a decade of sampling Americans about their views on First Amendment freedoms, the First Amendment Center finds year after year that very few — no more than three in 100 — can identify them by name. For decades, the message, if any, from schools and the courts has been a devaluation of free expression in favor of order and control and an emphasis on math and science over informed and active citizenship.

Far too many students — who of course grow up to be adults and perhaps also voters — experience the Bill of Rights and the Constitution as little more than the subject of history lessons and simplistic examinations of “how we got them” in 1787 and 1791 — with far less emphasis on “what do we do with them?” The nation’s third Constitution Day (Sept. 17) passed quietly for most outside of schools, overwhelmed by news of this year’s Emmy Awards and O.J.’s latest bizarre incident.

Combine a lack of knowledge with a drop in opportunity for real expression, and the survey results are easier to understand. As student newspapers and journalism classes fade from the scene for want of budgetary and administrative support, court decisions increasingly empower already emboldened school officials to ban and censor mere expression that disturbs the status quo as “disruptive.” Common sense says it’s hard to value what you don’t know or haven’t experienced.

Democracy demands we do better. It demands that we find a place and make time in the school curriculum and budget for real education about the real challenges of living in a diverse and free society. It demands community and government environments where a commitment to free expression and religious liberty is valued, not just recited — or worse, denied. It demands that we sometimes celebrate a disorderly “marketplace of ideas” — in town meetings as well as school classrooms.

As President John F. Kennedy once told the nation, “Liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain.”

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22209. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.

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