The freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment have been the bedrock of the nation’s character for over two centuries. The liberties guaranteed for speech, religion, press, assembly and petition have guided the nation through its historical challenges. The free expression principle is conceived as part of basic humanity, a controversial notion that still escapes the thinking of many other nations.
Americans today, however, seem to have little awareness for what the First Amendment can or should do in helping a highly polarized nation move forward. Recent poll results from the Annenberg Public Policy Center reveal a nation untethered from its constitutional heritage. The study showed 37 percent of Americans could not name a single right provided under the First Amendment. Less than half could name free speech as a guaranteed right, with only 15 percent naming freedom of religion and 14 percent freedom of the press. The rights to assembly and petition were basically missing from the radar.
The constitutional framers were themselves divided as to what such guaranteed liberties would mean for the young nation. Patriots such as Patrick Henry opposed the First Amendment and even the “Father of the Constitution” James Madison was late to support the idea. It is worth noting these liberties were added in an amendment and not included in the original constitution. The guarantees of free expression became the First Amendment only after initially being ordered third in a list of twelve amendments, the first two never being ratified. Thus, no assumption can be made of free expression being given the highest priority.
The nation’s confusion as to what it means today to have free expression is hardly surprising given how many cultural and political leaders seem to misunderstand or undervalue the principle. President Trump’s anti-press outbursts are well documented. Now, Hillary Clinton is also ripping the media for its role in last year’s election. Sure, Trump and Clinton have their own free speech rights to bash the media, but their harsh critiques suggest an unnecessary lack of understanding for the role of a watchdog press.
Senators Dick Durbin and Diane Feinstein recently displayed their confusion about the freedom to practice religion in their Judiciary Committee grilling of appeals court nominee Amy Barrett. The senators essentially applied a religious test to Barrett, inquiring about her Catholic faith and suggesting Barrett’s religious practices could prevent her from executing judgeship duties fairly.
Speakers at college campuses are now shouted down or not invited at all because their ideas don’t conform to campus norms or because certain parties don’t want to hear them. Speech codes stifle free inquiry at colleges that presumably were established to allow for robust debate. Even Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi was hounded off the stage by loud protesters recently as she tried to engage constituents.
The results of a recent study conducted by Brookings Institution scholar, John Villasenor, provide cause for concern. A survey of college students shows a fifth of respondents believe physical force is acceptable to shut up a speaker who utters offensive remarks. And, presumably, such censors themselves get to decide what constitutes “offensive” speech. It is dangerous for the nation when so many highly educated, supposedly tolerant, minds are willing to physically shut up speakers with whom they disagree.
The right to assemble has been bastardized to include vandalism, stopping traffic and disrupting the activities of fellow citizens. Exercising constitutional rights was never intended to interfere with the rights of other citizens who want to be left alone. Assembly as expression is different from action that threatens and interrupts others.
The federal courts have tried for years to referee what the First Amendment means in the lives of Americans. The courts try to provide guidance on protecting worthwhile expression while disallowing worthless expression and in distinguishing speech from actions that are harmful. But the courts face a near impossible challenge of refereeing all free expression issues. Ultimately, it is up the citizenry to embrace the value of the First Amendment and live up to it in daily life.
The First Amendment was created not just to protect an individual’s rights, but the rights of the other guys as well. Today, too many people look at these freedoms in a self-centered manner, protecting their own expressions but not those with whom they disagree. The First Amendment demands an other-centered, functional interdependence and an appreciation that everybody is covered under this ideal. Perhaps the nation would be less polarized if all citizens could buy into this conception.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.