Inalienable Yet Undefended?


Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center

As the nation on Sept. 17 again marks Constitution Day, it’s worth noting what a difference a few centuries make.

“Constitution Day” is a relatively new mandate from Congress for the nation’s schools and colleges — and an invitation for the rest of us — to spend time annually considering the 1787 document that created a strong, stable central government.

The Constitution replaced a much looser set of rules spelling out how the states would cooperate as a nation — the Articles of Confederation — that quickly proved unworkable in the view of many of the nation’s Founders.

Just four years after ratifying the Constitution, after much debate, the states adopted the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights in 1791 as a guarantee that the strong federal government would not trample on individual basic freedoms.

More than two centuries later, that fear of government has mellowed for many of our fellow citizens, according to the 2008 State of the First Amendment survey released today by the First Amendment Center.

Americans traditionally support the general concepts of free expression and religious liberty, but when asked in the survey about specific situations, many were willing to accept a measure of government involvement or even control.

The nationwide survey questions adults each year on their attitudes and opinions about free expression, a free press and religious liberty. The survey found that this year:

    • 39% would extend to subscription cable and satellite television the government’s current authority to regulate content on over-the-air broadcast television.
    • 54% would continue IRS regulations that bar religious leaders from openly endorsing political candidates from the pulpit without endangering the tax-exempt status of their organizations.
    • 66% say the government should be able to require television broadcasters to offer an equal allotment of time to conservative and liberal broadcasters; 62% would apply that same requirement to newspapers, which never have had content regulated by the government.
    • 38% would permit government to require broadcasters to report a specified amount of “positive news” in return for licenses to operate.
    • 31% would not permit musicians to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive.
    • 68% favor government restrictions on campaign contributions by private companies, and 55% favor such limits on amounts individuals can contribute to someone else’s campaign.

One of the great debates in Colonial America was whether or not to continue as citizens of a benevolent monarch — as kings saw themselves in those days — who would decide what could be said, sung or printed, along with controlling elections and the courts. In the end, the Founders declared their independence and the “inalienable” rights of individuals, and later used the Bill of Rights to define strong limits on how government might intrude on those rights.

Perhaps one reason so many are not fearful of, or would even invite, government limits on the five freedoms is that so few of us can even name them.

The survey found again this year that just 3% of those questioned could name “petition” as one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment. Only “speech” was named by a majority of respondents, 56%. Less than 20% named religion (15%), press (15%) or assembly (14%). The number for speech is the lowest in the 11-year history of the survey. As troubling: 4 in 10 could not name any freedom — the highest such result in the survey’s history.

“Inalienable” rights for all, indeed — but in today’s United States, rights that are unknown, unnamed, or even undefended, by many.

Full results

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].