An American Midsummer Night’s Reflection: Freedom

Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director

OK, so Memorial Day and July 4th have gone by, it’s about six weeks until Constitution Day, the anniversary of the Bill of Rights doesn’t arrive until Dec. 15 … and it’s the middle of summer.

None of those annual calendar prompts are conveniently available to cause us to celebrate America’s basic freedoms … and it’s the middle of summer, for gosh sakes.

But elsewhere in the world, people are thinking about their freedoms and in all too many cases, governments are doing their best to deny their citizens the basic rights of free expression and religious liberty protected here by our First Amendment.

Twitter is causing jitters in the world’s most populous nation. News reports say that China — perhaps after analyzing the role “tweets” had in fueling anti-government, post-election protests in Iran — has blocked Internet and cell-phone services following ethnic riots in western areas of the nation. Social-networking sites like Facebook, along with Chinese equivalents, were censored or blocked or both to prevent wide discussion about the violent incidents. According to blogger and columnist Arianna Huffington, Web sites and Internet postings were even “scrubbed” of videos and links that showed turmoil.

The Associated Press reported this month that the Chinese lockdown on these new means of communication began in March, after the appearance of YouTube videos showing security officials in possible confrontation with Tibetan citizens — a very sensitive subject for China’s leaders. And while the world took note on June 4 of the 20th anniversary of the demonstrations for freedom in Tiananmen Square and the brutal crackdown that followed, those videos and voices among the nation’s near-300 million Internet users were, in effect, electronically gagged.

In contrast, Americans of all political persuasions in recent weeks have watched, discussed and debated the values and credentials of veteran Judge Sonia Sotomayor, nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama. The federal appeals court judge and her White House nominator were criticized, analyzed, toasted and roasted all without government crackdown on critics or advocates. Meanwhile in Egypt, civil rights activists celebrated the acquittal of a poetry teacher who had been brought to trial — and initially sentenced to three years in jail — after his poem about oppression, which he wrote only for himself, fell into the hands of security police. The educator had been charged with insulting the nation’s president.

OK, it is the middle of summer, and vacation time for many of us, at that. Not the usual moments when most of us, if ever, stop to think about our First Amendment freedoms to worship, speak, write, gather, protest and talk back to the government.

For me, the impetus to consider such themes was a recent chance to spend time with about 20 intriguing, inquisitive students from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The group of students, in a U.S. State Department sponsored program, has been spending a lot time thinking about America’s freedoms, studying the past month or so at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Consider their questions: Are there really no blasphemy laws in the U.S.? As fewer and fewer media moguls own more and more media outlets in their countries, where will minority voices appear, given that there is no First Amendment to keep a government from favoring voices that prosper by favoring it? How do we draw the line between hateful speech that contains ideas which wound and hate speech that can lead to real wounds?

I’d like to say that I had answers that lived up to the challenge of their questions, but they will be the best judge of that: No, we have no enforceable laws (a few remain on the books) that preclude what some would consider blasphemy when criticizing religion. Yes, we are very fortunate that the First Amendment protects disparate voices, from mainstream media to Twittering pioneers, from being suppressed by government. And we do draw a fine but strong line between accepting that some ideas will hurt and prosecuting the true threats that will harm. The reason: A true marketplace of ideas includes those that the majority would rather not hear.

There’s nothing wrong with leaving the world’s cares behind on a warm summer’s night, or taking a break from harsh realities to kick back a bit on vacation.

But pause for just a moment, if you will, to consider America’s freedoms and how fortunate we are even as others struggle or are denied their basic rights — whether or not the day is marked by banners and bunting. And even though, yes, indeed, it’s the middle of summer.

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