Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | July 12, 2005

Education and freedom are inextricably linked

“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 of the United States Constitution

A speaker at last weekend’s award luncheon at the California Newspaper Publishers Association conference exhorted the gathered journalists to speak to our readers, families, friends and associates about the importance of the First Amendment. This subject has been festering in the back of my mind as a column topic ever since I read an article last January with the disturbing headline, “U.S. students say press freedoms go too far.” (USAToday.com, January 31, 2005)

I was shocked by how little American high school students seem to grasp about the importance and meaning of the first 45 words of the Bill of Rights. The article discussed a survey of more than 112,000 students that found that more than 36 percent believe “newspapers should get ‘government approval’ of stories before publishing.” Thirty-two percent believe the press enjoys “too much” freedom.

The study was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which is a nonprofit organization devoted to improving journalism. “These results are not only disturbing; they are dangerous,” said Hodding Carter III, the foundation’s president and CEO. “Ignorance about the basics of this free society is a danger to our nation’s future.”

Carter is in good company with his emphasis on the importance of a free press. Founding father and former president Thomas Jefferson said, “Where the press is free and every man able to read, all is safe.”

It’s interesting that Jefferson linked literacy to preserving our freedoms; the Knight Foundation points to schools as a leading reason that students understand so little about the First Amendment. In its press release about the survey, the Knight Foundation noted that 25 percent of U.S. schools do not offer media programs – things like student newspapers – where students have the opportunity to see up close how important a free press really is.

A free press is an important check on the abuse of power by government. Without a vigorous and free press, citizens are vulnerable to tyranny.

With the recent jailing of a New York Times reporter for protecting a source, it’s easy to see that a free press sometimes come at a high price.

But the First Amendment doesn’t just guarantee a free press, it also guarantees the right of free speech, the right to sue, religious liberty and the right of assembly. Thanks to the First Amendment, citizens of the United States enjoy the broadest rights of free speech and the freest news media in the world, but we should not, cannot take them for granted.

The First Amendment raises thorny and unpleasant issues, like criticism of the government in time of war, flag burning and hate speech. It forces us to consider difficult questions, for example, whether and where prayer and “Under God” and monuments to the Ten Commandments are appropriate.

Free speech and a free press allow us to enjoy an excellent community newspaper that reports on how our government is spending taxpayers’ money – on police stations and training trips, on questionable boat purchases, on firefighter overtime pay, on settlements with city employees, on special elections, and more. It reports on how our public schools are doing in the vital job of educating our students and how government is doing in its critical role of ensuring public safety. It gives us an vigorous opinion page where neighbors air ideas and opinions, criticize and laud our leaders, public servants and one another. I wonder, how many of those stories and opinions would have been printed if ‘government approval’ was required?

With the recent retirement of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and with the Internet rife with rumors that a second justice will retire any day now, a few quotes from former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black seem especially apt. I hope that whomever is appointed to the nation’s highest court has as high a respect for the First Amendment as Black did.

“A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and degrade religion.”

“The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to bare the secrets of government and inform the people.”

“The Framers of the Constitution knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.”

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