When it comes to our core freedoms, is a "C+" grade good enough?
A new "First Amendment Report Card," unveiled today 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 news media, 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 momentary threats and longer-term assaults on 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.
Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.
When it comes to our core freedoms, is a "C+" grade good enough?
Our representative democracy depends on voters developing discriminating judgments about policies and politicians. They can’t do that if vital information is withheld from them.
For the last few years, I’ve been keeping a file of clippings about the erosion of transparency and candor in government. I’m sorry to report that it’s getting rather full.
This is not a good thing. Public officials should feel strongly obliged to do their business in an open and upfront manner. When you hold public office, the presumption ought always to be in favor of the people’s right to know what’s going on. If you don’t want to be open to scrutiny, then the burden surely has to be on you to say specifically why that’s necessary.
This doesn’t seem to be a commonly held view in Washington these days, though the precedent for non-disclosure is bipartisan. News conferences have been rare for Mr. Obama and Mr. Trump. During the George W. Bush administration the NSA was wiretapping Americans’ overseas communications based on legal justifications that were withheld from the public. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department pushed to compromise a fundamental principle under which federal agencies made public their rationale for how they interpreted and administered the law.
The current administration has made policy-making more secretive than ever. President Trump refuses to release his tax returns, making it impossible for Americans to know whether his actions also happen to affect his financial bottom line. There have been constant attempts to draw a curtain over possible ties between Trump aides and Russia. The secretary of state talks about shifting policy toward North Korea — but gives no indication of what that policy is. The President has promised to rip up the Iran nuclear agreement, but has not done it and doesn’t tell us what his policy toward Iran is.
Vice President Pence has said all options are on the table with regard to Syria and that its conduct “cannot be tolerated,” but the administration is mum on what that actually means for strategy. Indeed, when asked his Syria intentions by reporters, President Trump responded, “I’m not going to tell you.”
This attitude is especially worrisome when it comes to foreign policy — where robust public debate over policy serves our national interests. Yet Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo for key meetings without a press accompaniment, went for weeks without holding a press conference, and has yet to deliver a speech outlining U.S. policy in any detail. He says, "I'm not a big media press access person." Yet, he is officially our face both at home and abroad on relations with allies and rivals, and we don’t actually know what policies he’s pursuing.
There are legitimate secrets and reasons for non-disclosure, of course, and I’m confident that most Americans understand that they’re sometimes necessary. When public officials state occasionally that they cannot speak to a given question and lay out the reasons why, people tend to accept it.
All too often, though, classification and obfuscation are used to avoid debate and scrutiny for political reasons — or to protect bureaucrats or public officials whose actions simply could not hold up under the light of rigorous scrutiny. That’s why leaks, as much as presidents and cabinet members decry them, can be so important: that’s how we learned about the Watergate scandal; about the sale of weapons to Iran in Iran-Contra; about the torture we conducted at Abu Ghraib; about the NSA’s spying. And it’s why financial disclosure at every level, from the presidency to city hall, matters.
For in the end, people need to know what policymakers are doing and why. And policy makers need to respect the interest and the intelligence of the voters, and heed their obligation to the voter for candor and disclosure. Our representative democracy depends on voters developing discriminating judgments about policies and politicians, and they can’t do it if vital information is withheld from them. In a democracy like ours, it’s the height of disrespect for public officials to keep their actions and thinking cloaked.
There’s no reason for the public to brook such disrespect. We need to demand open communication, straight talk, and more complete disclosure of information. We need to expect that our public officials will do their business in public — and that if they can’t, they’ll explain clearly to us why not. This is our democracy. Let’s treat it that way.
Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar, IU School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.
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