NASHVILLE - What do you know about the First Amendment? That it protects freedom of religion and speech? What else? That it protects freedom of the press and the right of the people to peacefully demonstrate when they object to something their government is doing, or trying to do?
If you know all of these things about the First Amendment, you are more knowledgeable than most of your fellow citizens.
According to an annual poll conducted by the First Amendment Center and American Journalism Review (AJR), in conjunction with the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, just 14 percent know that freedom of the press is guaranteed by the Constitution, 18 percent are aware that freedom of religion is protected, 10 percent know they have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble and a minuscule 2 percent think they can petition their government to redress grievances. Perhaps this ignorance is what accounts for the shockingly high number of people (41 percent according to the poll) who "strongly agree" that the First Amendment" goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Eight percent "mildly agree" with that statement. These numbers, already high when the first poll was taken in 1997, have been trending upward over the last five years.
More than 40 percent of respondents in this year's poll said that newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military's strategy and performance. About half think the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism. More than four in 10 say they would limit the academic freedom of professors and ban criticism of government military policy.
Fear can limit freedom, as President George W. Bush noted when he addressed the nation on Sept. 20, 2001. He said, "(The terrorists) hate our freedom: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."
A major contributor to the vast ignorance about the First Amendment is our education system, which fails to teach the Constitution. The First Amendment Center, based in Nashville, is doing something about that. It has created an audiovisual presentation called "Freedom Sings." Members of the National Conference of Editorial Writers, meeting last week in Nashville, were invited to a performance before the show goes on the road.
Singers and musicians perform songs that at one time or another in our history have been banned by government, censored by radio or were found offensive by large numbers of Americans. In retrospect, these songs not only sound harmless, but they even prompted conservatives like me to sing along with the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and the Vietnam-era anti-war song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" The program also includes patriotic numbers, such as "Ballad of the Green Berets" and "Yankee Doodle Dandy." A parallel exhibit features books that have been banned, including "Ulysses" and "Lolita," as well as the New Testament and "Little Red Riding Hood."
"Freedom Sings" is designed for college campuses, but it should also be brought to high schools. Some of the music is tailored for the audience. An older group gets anti-war songs. A younger one gets rap music. However, this program wouldn't be necessary if our schools were doing a better job of teaching the fundamental documents and doctrines that make the United States unique among nations.
The program is fun, and what I admire most is that it is scrupulously well-balanced. It would have been easy to trend liberal, as so many do when discussing censorship, but the creators have done an excellent job of provoking thought and appealing to all political perspectives.
The point of teaching the First Amendment is to learn that the same Constitution that protects the rights of people who say things with which you disagree also guards your right to say something with which other people disagree.
As the AJR poll summary concludes: "the terrorists view our personal liberties with contempt and see them as a weakness. The challenge for all Americans . is to truly embrace the freedoms of the First Amendment and show just how strong we really are."