Is C+ good enough for core free­doms?

The Review - - Opinion - Gene Policin­ski is chief oper­at­ing of­fi­cer of the New­seum In­sti­tute. He can be reached at gpolicin­ski@ new­seum.org. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @gene­fac.

When it comes to our core free­doms, is a “C+” grade good enough?

A new “First Amend­ment Re­port Card,” re­leased by the First Amend­ment Cen­ter of the New­seum In­sti­tute, gives our First Amend­ment free­doms — re­li­gion, speech, press, assem­bly and pe­ti­tion — a barely pass­ing grade.

The grades were as­signed by 15 pan­elists from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, some of them ex­perts on First Amend­ment is­sues over­all, and some who fo­cus on spe­cific ar­eas such as re­li­gion or press.

Assem­bly and pe­ti­tion — the rights to gather peace­ably with like-minded peo­ple with­out govern­ment re­stric­tion or pros­e­cu­tion, and ask the govern­ment for changes in poli­cies and prac­tices — re­ceived the high­est marks, at a “B-.” Re­li­gion and speech were graded at a “C+,” while press was given a “C.”

On press, for ex­am­ple, pan­elists pointed to Pres­i­dent Trump’s cam­paign threat to “open up” li­bel laws in or­der to more eas­ily sue me­dia out­lets; the ad­min­is­tra­tion block­ing cer­tain news or­ga­ni­za­tions from at­tend­ing White House brief­ings; the “fake news” phe­nom­e­non; and the pres­i­dent’s gen­eral en­mity for the press.

Assem­bly and pe­ti­tion re­ceived the high­est grades, with pan­elists not­ing that re­cent protests and po­lit­i­cal marches were clas­sic demon­stra­tions of both free­doms, and that the govern­ment took no ac­tion to crack down on them or the re­sult­ing me­dia cov­er­age.

Per­haps you — or I, since I didn’t par­tic­i­pate in the grad­ing — might have rated the free­doms dif­fer­ently. Good. That would mean we were think­ing crit­i­cally about those ba­sic free­doms, which de­fine us as citizens and en­able our democ­racy to func­tion as such.

And no doubt some will say that in a con­tentious world, and with an elec­torate split straight down the mid­dle on most is­sues, it would be too much to ex­pect a more fa­vor­able as­sess­ment of the First Amend­ment.

But I’ll ad­mit that a “C+” leaves me un­easy.

For too long, too many of us have ei­ther taken those free­doms for granted, as­sum­ing that they will al­ways be there, or con­sid­ered them in nar­row ways (be­liev­ing, for ex­am­ple, that free­dom of speech is not for those with whom we dis­agree, or that so-called fringe faiths are not re­ally cov­ered by free­dom of re­li­gion).

Many more of us live in ig­no­rance of the free­doms that were so dearly won. Each year, when re­sults of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter’s State of the First Amend­ment sur­vey are re­leased, the sur­vey con­sis­tently finds that large num­bers of Amer­i­cans — some­times more than one-third — can­not name a sin­gle free­dom pro­vided by the 225-year old amend­ment.

The re­port card, ti­tled “The First Amend­ment in the Age of Trump,” none­the­less re­flects is­sues that are not lim­ited to the pres­i­dent’s first 100 days, or to the time he spends in of­fice.

Some of those is­sues have been sim­mer­ing for years. The Tea Party and the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ments raised is­sues around speech, assem­bly and pe­ti­tion to new lev­els of aware­ness. The “cul­ture wars” around mat­ters of faith — from the silly, such as whether to call them “Christ­mas” or “Hol­i­day” trees, to the very se­ri­ous, such as fed­eral poli­cies that may dis­crim­i­nate against Mus­lims — have raged for decades, and show no signs of abat­ing.

Sur­veys dat­ing well back into the 1990s chart a grow­ing public ap­pre­hen­sion about the cred­i­bil­ity, mo­tives and bias of the news­me­dia, and a wor­ri­some ero­sion of sup­port for the press’s role as a “watch­dog on govern­ment.” Amidst wors­en­ing public opin­ion, jour­nal­ists have also had to con­tend with shrink­ing re­sources as they at­tempt to track govern­ment of­fi­cials’ per­for­mance and measure govern­ment ef­fec­tive­ness.

The quar­terly re­port card is not in­tended, and could not be, the fi­nal word on our First Amend­ment free­doms — the is­sues are too com­plex and the dis­putes too nu­mer­ous, and filled with far too many twists and turns.

But the grad­ing sys­tem will serve to call our at­ten­tion, par­tic­u­larly over time, to a need to de­fend one or more free­doms from threats to our free ex­pres­sion and reli­gious lib­erty rights.

Stay tuned — a new First Amend­ment Re­port Card will be is­sued each quar­ter, prompt­ing us all to take a closer look at how we un­der­stand, de­fend and prac­tice our First Amend­ment free­doms. And maybe one day we’ll get to add an­other grad­ing area — one where you and I and our fel­low citizens get an “A” for ef­fort.

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