The First Amend­ment works — and will, if we still have it

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Gene Policin­ski

Our First Amend­ment free­doms will work — if we still have them around to use. Those five free­doms — re­li­gion, speech, press, as­sem­bly and pe­ti­tion — have been chal­lenged at var­i­ous times in our na­tion’s his­tory, as many would say they are to­day. But the very free­doms them­selves pro­vide the means and mech­a­nisms for our so­ci­ety to self-cor­rect those chal­lenges, per­haps a main rea­son why the First Amend­ment has en­dured, un­changed, since Dec. 15, 1791.

Case in point: The tragic mass shoot­ing in Or­lando, Florida, on June 12 was fol­lowed by a burst of anti-Is­lamic rhetoric across the coun­try af­ter the killer de­clared al­le­giance to ISIS. The speech, how­ever hate­ful, gen­er­ally was pro­tected by the First Amend­ment.

But in turn, those at­tacks were fol­lowed by push­back in the other di­rec­tion. Mus­lim lead­ers de­cried the use of their faith to jus­tify ha­tred of the United States or ho­mo­pho­bic ter­ror­ism. Op­po­si­tion was ramped up to the idea of in­creased sur­veil­lance of Mus­lims in Amer­ica and now-Pres­i­den­t­elect Don­ald Trump’s sug­ges­tion for a tem­po­rary ban on Mus­lims en­ter­ing the United States.

In two rounds of na­tional polling in the New­seum In­sti­tute’s an­nual State of the First Amend­ment sur­vey, sup­port for First Amend­ment pro­tec­tion for “fringe or ex­treme faiths” ac­tu­ally in­creased af­ter the Or­lando at­tack, com­pared with sam­pling done in May.

The num­ber of peo­ple who said First Amend­ment pro­tec­tion does not ex­tend to such faiths dropped from 29 to 22 per­cent. In both surveys, just over 1,000 adults were sam­pled by tele­phone, and the mar­gin of er­ror in the surveys was plus or mi­nus 3.2 per­cent­age points.

The First Amend­ment is pred­i­cated on the no­tion that cit­i­zens who are able to freely de­bate — with­out gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship or di­rec­tion — will ex­change views, some­times strongly and on con­tro­ver­sial sub­jects, but even­tu­ally find com­mon ground.

Of course, that kind of vig­or­ous and ro­bust ex­change in the mar­ket­place only can hap­pen if there is a “mar­ket­place” — free­dom for all to speak — and a will­ing­ness to join with oth­ers in se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion, de­bate and dis­course that has a goal of im­prov­ing life for us all.

Here’s where the sur­vey re­sults turn omi­nous: Nearly four in 10 of those ques­tioned in the 2016 State of the First Amend­ment sur­vey, which was re­leased July 4, could not name un­aided a sin­gle free­dom in the First Amend­ment.

Per­haps not iden­ti­fy­ing by name even one of the five free­doms is not the same as not know­ing you have those core free­doms. But nei­ther does the re­sult build con­fi­dence that, as a na­tion, we have a deep un­der­stand­ing of what dis­tin­guishes our na­tion among all oth­ers and is so fun­da­men­tal to the unique Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence of self-gov­er­nance.

We have thrived as a na­tion with a so­cial or­der and a gov­ern­ment struc­ture in which the ex­change of views is a key to solv­ing prob­lems. The na­tion’s ar­chi­tects had a con­fi­dence and op­ti­mism that such ex­changes in the so-called “mar­ket­place of ideas” would ul­ti­mately work for the pub­lic good.

What would those founders think of a so­ci­ety in which so many seem to fa­vor the elec­tronic ver­sions of di­vided “mar­ket­places” that per­mit only that speech of which you al­ready ap­prove or that con­firms your ex­ist­ing views?

Or worse yet, a so­ci­ety in which the five free­doms are used as weapons — from cy­ber­bul­ly­ing to mass Twit­ter at­tacks to de­lib­er­ate distri­bu­tion of “fake news” — to fig­u­ra­tively set ablaze or tear down an op­po­nent’s stand?

As a na­tion, we can­not aban­don the val­ues of our First Amend­ment free­doms that pro­tect re­li­gious lib­erty, that de­fend free ex­pres­sion at its widest def­i­ni­tion and that pro­vide a right to un­pop­u­lar dis­sent, with­out fun­da­men­tally chang­ing the char­ac­ter of our na­tion.

As a peo­ple, we must stand in de­fense of the val­ues set out in the First Amend­ment and Bill of Rights some 225 years ago, even as we face one of the deep­est pub­lic di­vides on a range of is­sues in our his­tory.

And we must re­visit and re­new our faith in a con­cept ex­pressed in 1664 by English poet and scholar John Mil­ton and later wo­ven deep into the in­sti­tu­tional fab­ric of Amer­ica: that in a bat­tle be­tween truth and false­hood, “who ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open en­counter?” Gene Policin­ski is chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of the New­seum In­sti­tute, which in­cludes the Re­li­gious Free­dom Cen­ter, the First Amend­ment Cen­ter and New­se­umED. One of the found­ing ed­i­tors of USA To­day, he is a vet­eran mul­ti­me­dia jour­nal­ist, host­ing on­line au­dio and video pro­grams at the New­seum In­sti­tute, and a fre­quent speaker and au­thor on First Amend­ment is­sues.

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