Sunday, February 6

Forgetting The First Amendment

This morning, I read a column by Thomas Mitchell, editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, that shared some disturbing (but not so surprising) survey statistics that revealed how much 112,000 high school students valued the First Amendment.

After having the First Amendment read to them, 35 percent agreed with the statement "does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees" and 21 percent were undecided. Even more troubling, when asked whether newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without prior government approval of a story, only 24 percent of these students strongly agreed. Thirty two percent also concluded the press had too much freedom.

A year earlier, a similar survey was conducted among adults. Sixty five percent disagreed with the statement "does the First Amendment go too far in the rights it guarantees" yet only 48 percent strongly agreed that newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without prior government approval of a story. While not much better, we could at least find some comfort in that a majority of Americans truly valued one of their most important Constitutional freedoms.

While one can only guess, there seem to be several reasons that the First Amendment is losing its luster. Among them: a growing mistrust of the media and its corporate owners, the increasing number of news stories that have been proven politicized or biased, the continuing number of inaccurate stories that are the result of journalists who sacrificed accuracy for expedience, and the ever-present emergence of less credible yet popular publishers who specialize in pushing the boundaries to the extreme. In short, the media is very often its own worst enemy in demonstrating its vital role in preserving our most basic freedoms for one reason or another.

Personally, I tend to subscribe to the theory that any abuse of the First Amendment tends to die in a day, while any restriction to the First Amendment will last generations, if not indefinitely. Unfortunately, I find myself in a shrinking minority, perhaps because my fellow citizens sometimes have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

They don't always understand that increased government scrutiny on the media would include increased government scrutiny on their individual thoughts, views, and opinions as well. Perhaps it is ignorance, but they don't seem to understand that the day they begin a website or blog is the day that they have effectively decided to become a publisher, subject to the same restrictions that might one day be placed upon the media. Second, and even more startling to me, they sometimes seem to think that the government (whether local, state, or federal) will always act responsibly and never do anything to undermine the freedoms we have been granted, especially the First Amendment. But then again, I know better.

A few years ago, I worked on now State Senator Bob Beers' first run for the state assembly. During the race, his campaign team published a direct mail piece that brought to light several lies being promoted by his opponent during the primary. Once the piece was published and mailed, his opponent filed a complaint with a state commission and this governmental body ruled that although the piece was factually accurate, Beers should be fined because, in sum, the commission did not like the presentation of the content. Right. Beers was literally fined for telling the truth, a blatant violation of the First Amendment.

Fortunately, Beers was exonerated and went on to win his first bid to serve in the legislature as an assemblyman. Last year, he was elected to the state senate. Coincidentally, we again faced a challenging primary from a 20-year incumbent who allowed his campaign team to publish countless misleading information and blatant lies about Beers. We decided, rather than file a complaint with a governmental entity, to employ an old-fashioned solution: the best way to remedy an abuse of the First Amendment is not by censoring the abuser, but by a candid, timely, and open discussion and presentation of the facts. In doing so, relatively few people were swayed by the opponent's misleading statements. Bob Beers won handily, and is currently representing his district as the clearest voice among fiscal conservatives and as vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

My point is simple enough. The First Amendment does not simply protect the media. It protects all of us. Value it. Preserve it. Protect it. Without it, we may very well one day have to apply for a license to publish something as simple as a blog post.

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