Emily Klose/Voices | It might be time for a refresher course on free speech

Emily Klose/Voices | It might be time for a refresher course on free speech

By EMILY KLOSE

More than 20 percent of Americans can name all five "Simpsons" characters, according to "Can't Touch This," an eight-minute movie being screened in the small theater of the Cox Enterprises First Amendment Gallery in Washington, D.C.'s illustrious Newseum.

Yet the same video tells us that only 3 percent of Americans can name all five of our First Amendment freedoms.

I thought about these two statistics as I shopped at the Newseum recently after taking a paid tour of this 10-year-old, $450 million shrine to journalism. It's located on prime real estate on Pennsylvania Avenue, about midway between the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

As I examined merchandise for sale, I was surprised to find that in a museum supposedly devoted to the lofty ideals of all things journalism, the following words were printed on T-shirts and ball caps displayed prominently in the Newseum store: "Freedom of speech is not a license to be stupid."

Oh, I thought, perplexed. It's not? All this time I had labored under the belief that in a free society, all voices shall be heard, regardless of whether the words being uttered seem stupid, controversial, offensive, ridiculous, frightening or something in between, to someone, somewhere. Perhaps the Newseum's founders, unlike our Founding Fathers, aren't as familiar with the First Amendment's section on free speech as you'd expect.

Otherwise, why would they proudly sign the name Newseum to such a statement on a T-shirt? Would they tout the sale of merchandise bearing this curious statement if they actually understood the First Amendment?

Using my degree in news-editorial journalism from the University of Illinois, I put on my reporter's hat and tried to find out. From computer research, I learned that the Newseum is owned and funded by a private foundation called the Freedom Forum. I also learned that the Newseum is on fragile financial ground and has been that way for several years.

When I presented myself in person at the Newseum with a list of questions, the only paid Newseum employee (there are many volunteers) who would talk to me even a little bit evaded my questions, saying, "We aren't authorized to talk to the press."

Perhaps it's because I was there on a weekend. I did, in fact, go to the Newseum three March days in a row (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) hoping to talk to someone who was allowed to talk (ahem) freely about the merchandise. I even purchased a one-year membership for $75 to avoid the $24.95 daily admission fee that I otherwise would've had to pay on all future visits to the Newseum.

Or perhaps it's because so many visitors to the Newseum aren't really interested in taxing their brains with mental baggage about the First Amendment, preferring instead to drool over exhibits such as "First Dogs," a pictorial look at American presidents and their furry friends. It is easy to get distracted in this place by things that have absolutely nothing to do with journalism.

Hey, did you know that George Washington was a noted foxhound breeder who gave his dogs adorable names like Tipsy, Drunkard and Tipler?

Think about the many events in our nation's history that have occurred — and continue to occur — because people have refused to remain quiet. Have refused to accept the status quo. Have spoken up. Have spoken their minds. Have refused to be well-behaved. Have been unafraid to demand change. Have protested and risked and lost their lives struggling for righteous causes that others denounced as, well, harebrained or hopeless.

People exercising their First Amendment rights often say things that are stupid. But consider the alternative. I think it's called Russia. In the Newseum's own video, rapper and actor LL Cool J nails it when he says: "All of these ideas deserve to be heard. All of them."

Perhaps the bigwigs at the Newseum need a timeout to watch their own video about the First Amendment before they embark on their next junket to purchase Newseum bling.

Emily Klose lives in Champaign.