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Toledo Legal News - Editorial List Table

 

Does it really matter that Americans don't know exactly what the First Amendment says?

 

The majority of Americans are supportive of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, but are also unaware of exactly what those rights are, according to the recently released 2018 State of the First Amendment survey by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute.

When asked if the First Amendment goes too far in the rights that it protects, more than three-fourths of Americans disagree. That's fairly good news, but it's somewhat tempered by the fact that a third of Americans cannot name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Another third can only name one. Only one survey respondent out of a sample of 1,009 could name all five. And 9 percent of Americans think that the First Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. (For the record, that's the Second Amendment.)

But does it really matter that Americans don't know exactly what the First Amendment says? After all, while no one's done a survey on the state of the Third Amendment, I'd wager that most Americans have no clue what rights that one guarantees and I'm not losing any sleep over that. (In case you're curious, the Third Amendment says that no one can force you to quarter British soldiers inside your home. The issue doesn't come up much these days.)

But First Amendment issues do come up a lot (just look at the number of First Amendment-related decisions the Supreme Court made this term). And the fact that Americans are generally aware that the First Amendment gives them the right to express themselves but are pretty fuzzy on its actual details is problematic. As any teacher can tell you, a little knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge at all. In this case, it leads to people passionately invoking the First Amendment in some circumstances and ignoring its existence in others.

So, for a quick review, the First Amendment grants us five freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. All of these freedoms are interconnected. The freedom of religion prevents the government from establishing its own religion, and from favoring one religion over another. It also keeps the government from interfering with the way people practice their religious beliefs. Religious freedom is a powerful thing, even if you yourself are not religious. It essentially grants each individual the freedom to develop their own conscience and their own values. The government doesn't get to tell you what your values should be — that's for you to decide.

Freedom of speech protects your right to express those values, even if that expression is critical of the government. Freedom of the press guarantees your right to uncensored information about the world around you and especially information about what your government is doing. And if you don't like what the government is doing — if its actions contradict the values you cherish — you have the freedom of petition, which is the freedom to ask for the laws you want, and the freedom to assemble a group of like-minded people to give that request some political heft. We need all five of these freedoms to have a democracy that ensures comprehensive protection of the American citizenry.

As a country, we'll probably always disagree about what the precise limits of the First Amendment should be. People will certainly always invoke the First Amendment in a self-serving manner, championing some of these freedoms while discounting others — think of Milo Yiannopoulos presenting himself as a defender of free speech but calling for vigilante squads to target journalists. Yes, it's his First Amendment right to make tasteless comments. But hopefully one day Americans will understand the First Amendment well enough to recognize how disingenuous it is to treat it like an a la carte menu.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

Lata Nott, First Amendment Center

Media burdens run two ways

 

I was chatting with a group of students the other day when one of them looked me in the eye and commented, “You’re very tough on journalists.” I had to plead guilty.

Of course I’m tough on journalists. Maybe even as tough on them as they are on politicians.

Our representative democracy depends on journalists doing their jobs. Why? Because it’s essential that citizens get the solid, accurate, and fair information they need to make good judgments about politicians and policy decisions. Our system cannot work if journalists and the institutions they work for don’t shoulder the burden of serving as watchdogs, holding government accountable, shining a light on overlooked challenges, and exploring complicated issues in as clear-eyed a manner as possible.

Which is why, if you value representative democracy, you have to be deeply concerned about the once-over-lightly journalism that fills our media. Too often, reporters, commentators and online contributors focus on trivia, partisan posturing, and political gamesmanship, and not on the substance of issues.

The disruptive forces that have laid waste to traditional journalistic organizations have pared down the newsrooms that can carry out in-depth journalism and investigative reporting. Yet the world we live in is so complicated and so difficult to understand that the need is greater than ever for journalists to pick out what really matters in their communities or in the nation and convey solid information to the citizen.

I have no illusions about how difficult this is. Nailing down good information requires a lot of effort, persistence, and time. A single story can take months to follow carefully. Making sense of the issues that affect us — in politics, the legal system, medicine, war and peace, the economy — requires patience, expertise, analytical skill, and the ability to convey complexity in a simple fashion.

The prevalence of fake news and misinformation makes this search for objective truth ever more difficult and challenging. If we don’t have the right information as citizens, then we don’t have the facts to shape our opinions — and we’re going to be in trouble as a nation.

Disentangling truth and untruth from the citizen’s standpoint is really hard. So I applaud and admire journalists who are dedicated to truth. And there are enough of them that there is still plenty of good, solid reporting.

It’s not always easy to find, though, amidst all the less-than-solid noise that fills our media landscape. This places a particular burden on us, as citizens, to work hard to find it and understand it. Especially because some of the institutions we once relied upon for independent, objective information — I’m thinking specifically of Congress here — have increasingly stopped serving as models for the search for truth.

The plain truth is, there’s much to distract both journalists and citizens from what’s really necessary to cover and to understand. Sorting through all the information at our fingertips, distilling meaning from it, zeroing in on what’s really important: that’s work that both journalists and ordinary citizens have to undertake.

If you’re a local journalist, that means looking into every nook and cranny of government and chasing down what's important and what doesn’t add up. For more broad-based journalists, the responsibility is to look at events, analyze them, and convey what needs to be conveyed to the public to make sound decisions about good governance.

And for citizens, it means conscientiously following reliable, fact-oriented media — and not just a single source, either, because none has a monopoly on the truth — and using their reporting to make discriminating judgments about public affairs.

Getting all of this right is essential to making our government work. Journalists have to ask themselves whether they are getting to the bottom of stories and giving enough information to citizens so they can make good judgments — or are they too focused on trivia and entertainment and posturing? And citizens — whose media tastes drive so much of what the media provide — need to be focused on what matters.

It’s a complicated dance, but in the end, it comes down to one thing: journalists need to provide, and citizens need to ask for, the reporting that’s necessary to make the country work.

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.

Lee Hamilton, Center on Representative Government

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