Understanding the First Amendment
“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.” — First Amendment, U.S. Constitution
The First Amendment lays out the freedoms that are cornerstones of our way of life — but they are under siege.
The First Amendment Report Card released in August 2018 by the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute gives First Amendment freedoms a less-than-stellar grade.
The grades were assigned by 13 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. Panelists were advised to consider four elements in their evaluations: legislation, executive orders, judicial decisions and public opinion; and also to consider long-term trends and actions.
Petition and assembly — the rights to ask the government for changes in policies and practices, and to gather peaceably with like-minded people without government restriction or prosecution — received the highest marks at “B’’ and “B-” respectively.
“Religion was graded at a “B-,” an improvement over 2017’s “C+.”
Speech remained at “C+.”
Press remained at “C.”
The grades average a “B-,” an improvement from the “C+” grade the First Amendment received in the 2017 report card.
The report card series was launched in 2017 as a way to systematically assess the state of core U.S. freedoms.
According to the First Amendment Center, the improvement in the First Amendment’s overall grade can be attributed to a series of Supreme Court decisions panelists viewed as favorable to the freedoms of religion and speech, and the absence of national controversies surrounding the freedoms of assembly and petition. The grade for freedom of the press remained constant and was, once again, the most precarious of the First Amendment freedoms.
As it should, the press is stepping up as a primary advocate for First Amendment freedoms. A key is making people aware of those freedoms and the threats to them.
The S.C. Press Association — the organization of the state’s daily and weekly newspapers — has signed on as one of more than 40 press and broadcast associations across the country participating in the “Think F1rst” campaign.
The campaign was created by the Media of Nebraska in 2018 as a response to an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey that revealed that nearly 4 in 10 students couldn’t name even one of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Media of Nebraska members worked together to outline a campaign to combat the disturbing statistics.
“We’re proud to partner with these organizations on such an important campaign,” said Bill Rogers, SCPA executive director. “The Media of Nebraska team put a lot of thought and money into this project and we’re grateful they’re sharing it with our members. The ads are very effective.”
With First Amendment freedoms grading out at “B,” there is great need for public awareness. Anything less than respect for the freedoms it guarantees is shortsighted and dangerous.
It is up to every American to be vigilant — and tolerant. We are blessed like no others with freedoms in this country. But they are not guaranteed.
The First Amendment grade should be a strong “A’’ and Americans should not be content with anything less.
Reprinted with permission from The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg.