In case you can’t read the type on the top of page 4A of your favorite weekly newspaper, I will quote from it here:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
You might say I’m in the First Amendment business. (Journalism is the only profession listed in the First Amendment.) When people ask if I’m a veteran (as if any of the Armed Services wants someone with 20/400 uncorrected vision), I tell them I’m a veteran of the First Amendment wars.
If you have already gotten to page 16B of your favorite weekly newspaper before reading these 800 words (save the best for last?), you will have seen (or if you’re reading in page order you’ll get to see) the national Think F1rst campaign, an effort to educate Americans about the five freedoms in the First Amendment. The Wisconsin Newspaper Association, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and newspaper and broadcast associations in 28 states seek to get their readers, listeners and viewers to Think F1rst.
Think F1rst comes one year after the News Media Alliance, hundreds of newspapers across the U.S., and state newspaper associations coordinated a response against the verbal attacks against the news media by President Trump. One year ago, I quoted an Ipsos poll that reported that 29 percent of Americans agree that “the news media is the enemy of the American people,” and 26 percent believe that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.”
Those last two numbers are far more alarming than anything Trump or any politician says about my line of work, regardless of which president is in office. Politicians of today are no more respectful of free expression than, it seems, most of their constituents, regardless of party or lack thereof. (Anyone who thinks Trump is uniquely antagonistic toward the news media should ask a reporter about his or her experiences with elected officials and public figures.)
Around that time, the Annenberg Public Policy Center conducted a civics survey that found that nearly four in 10 students couldn’t name even one of the five freedoms protected under the First Amendment. Polls of adults reveal similarly discouraging results about knowledge of our First Amendment freedoms.
When I said I was a veteran of the First Amendment wars, that was a facetious statement. The truth is that the First Amendment wars are still taking place, particularly in today’s fractious society where respect for points of view that don’t agree with yours diminish by the day.
Consider the shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, last weekend. Every proposed policy solution to stop mass shootings that I’ve seen (which pop up after every mass shooting) as of Monday night infringes on someone’s rights — gun owners (nearly all of whom do not use their weapons illegally), the mentally ill (take their guns away and maybe institutionalize them involuntarily, some claim), users of violent video games (ban them!), the entertainment media (no more violent movies!). Even if it were not obvious that taking away someone’s rights makes no one else safer, there remains the fact that most gun owners and viewers of violent entertainments do not shoot other people, and that according to mental health professionals the biggest threat from mentally ill people is not to other people, but to themselves.
The Think F1rst campaign needs to reinforce this month, and we in the media need to reinforce every chance we get, that the First Amendment doesn’t belong merely to the press. It belongs to every American, in the same way that the state Constitution’s freedom of expression protections, as well as the state’s Open Meetings and Open Records laws, belong to every Wisconsinite. That italicized paragraph at the top of this page would mean nothing if it applied only to journalists, or religious people, or people happy with the way things are.
The First Amendment specifically, and the Bill of Rights generally, protect all Americans, but particularly a specific group of Americans, from government’s abridging those rights — political minorities, specifically people who disagree with what government is doing. You can’t have a democracy if the government restricts what people can say about itself, or anything else. It’s easy to just go with the popular opinion flow. Disagreement isn’t easy — and free expression doesn’t give anyone a Get Out of Consequences Free card — but the fact remains that we Americans don’t agree about what needs fixing in this country, and we won’t fix anything unless we argue it out. Free expression isn’t for the faint of heart.
Hopefully you can figure out by now why this page is called The First Amendment. Supporting free expression doesn’t require that you agree with every free expression. It does require that you support others’ rights to not think as you do, even if the First Amendment applies only to government.