Americans need more First Amendment insight
By Jeffrey M. McCall
Free expression philosophers have long asserted that a society's overall freedom hinges on the rights of citizens to speak and publish freely. That idea helped spark the American Revolution and has permeated the nation's political climate for more than 200 years. A new study by the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center, however, suggests that a growing number of Americans fail to appreciate the importance of free expression principles.
A startling 34 percent of Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees." Only 13 percent agreed with that statement a year ago. Even more shockingly, 47 percent of young adults ages 18-30 agreed that the First Amendment goes too far. That age group is generally considered to be more open to new ideas and the ability to express widely, but maybe only for what they have to say. The results were gathered in a national survey of more than 1,000 adults.
It is understandable in many ways why Americans might fail to appreciate the rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Abuses of the First Amendment surround us. Insincere politicians use their words to snooker voters with vacuous promises. Shrill pundits make emotional outbursts instead of suggesting rational solutions. Advertisers mislead us with exaggerated claims. Hate speech runs rampant on the Internet. Broadcasters have broken the boundaries of decency on radio and television. Obscenity peddlers pollute society while the Department of Justice refuses to pursue prosecutions.
The public perceives much "news" reporting as biased and unfair. Only 46 percent of survey respondents believe the news media even try to report the news without bias. Other reporting is done in a sensational fashion, adding little substance to a watered-down news agenda.
Clearly, irresponsible voices in society have exploited the free expression rights provided in the First Amendment. The problem, however, is not that the First Amendment goes too far in guaranteeing rights, but rather that some unethical communicators take advantage of free expression rights to deceive, mislead, divide and offend.
The alternative to having constitutionally guaranteed free expression is not attractive. Centralized control of speech, press or religious expression by powerful government officials leads to oppression, and ultimately, as history has shown, societal failure. Suppression of speech ultimately leads to the loss of all individual freedoms.
Combating communicators who exploit free expression for inappropriate purposes is difficult. Society needs more voices of reason in the arena to hold the demagogues accountable. The First Amendment was created on the principle that robust debate involving many voices would ultimately lead to rational decisions in the legislative and cultural spheres. Thus, more Americans should inject their voices into the marketplace of ideas, rather than grouse about the First Amendment going too far.
The first step in engaging that robust debate, however, is a fuller understanding of how free speech works and why the First Amendment matters. Sadly, as the First Amendment Center study indicates, too few Americans have a good sense of these protected rights. Thirty-six percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The First Amendment Center president, Ken Paulson, reflected on the survey results by calling for more awareness, "This underscores the need for more First Amendment education. If we truly understand the essential role of these freedoms in a democracy, we're more likely to protect them."
That free expression education needs to happen throughout the formal education system of the country, and it also needs to be generated by that institution that was specifically protected by constitutional framers — the press.
A T-shirt for sale in the Newseum gift shop in Washington, D.C., reads, "Freedom of Speech is not a license to be stupid." True enough, but common sense tells us that some people will, indeed, continue to disseminate stupid messages. First Amendment framer James Madison knew well that free expression rights could be abused, arguing before the other Founding Fathers saying, "Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything." In short, to get the benefits of a free society that come from free speech, the nation must allow and then respond to those stupid messages, and not give up on free expression by asserting that freedom "goes too far."
Jeffrey M. McCall, a native of Champaign, is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., and author of "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences." Contact him at email@example.com. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall.