Let's Keep the Fourth Going All Year Long

Jul 7, 2016

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

     The red, white and blue bunting is down, the flags are furled and the last of the fireworks have been sent aloft. And for far too many of us, that surge of patriotic fervor and effort found around July Fourth goes back into metaphorical storage for another year.

     Not that millions of our fellow citizens suddenly turn anti-American on July 5 — far from it. Americans wear their love of country on their collective sleeves all year long, and on license plates, t-shirts and knickknacks galore.

     But there is a sudden, dramatic falloff in the depth of attention we give to our nation. Back to work, back to play, back to the daily grind — and largely out of sight, out of mind are the spectacular, amazing, literally revolutionary messages that these United States have proclaimed since 1776 in the Declaration of Independence, since 1789 in the Constitution and since 1791 in the Bill of Rights: A respect for "inalienable" rights, a commitment to a strong central government restrained by the rule of law, and a profound pledge to honor the basic rights of its citizens.

     Each year we celebrate those messages in uniquely American ways: with songs and music on the National Mall, parties and picnics in parks, bright and noisy parades on Main Street and solemn moments in fields of honor nationwide.

     And then, our proud annual moments of national appreciation fade and we return to being citizens who know little and perhaps care less about how our freedoms really work. Too harsh?

     Once again, nearly four in 10 of us cannot name a single one of our core First Amendment freedoms. In fact, in the Newseum Institute's just-released State of the First Amendment survey, only one freedom — speech — could be named by even half of us. I wish I could say that's the first year since the survey began 20 years ago that such was the case. But it's been the same every year.

     We revert to being a place where, to our joy, some 75 percent of us do not think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. But that also means that this year, 21 percent said we do have too much freedom (Some 4 percent couldn't even muster an opinion.)

     For another 364 days, we likely will again be a place where some distort how freedoms work, for political gain or social dispute. Not long after this year's State of the First Amendment (SOFA) survey was posted, a self-proclaimed Facebook "expert" explained how Congress was restrained from tramping on free speech rights — except, of course, for those damned flag burners who ought to be put in jail if not put to death. A fact for your next Fourth: Flag burning (and other attempts at flag desecration) as political protest has been protected by law for a quarter century. We may not like it — and most of us don't, regardless of political views or religious or regional differences — but we protect it as part and price of protecting free expression.

     As the Republican and Democratic national conventions approach, host cities prepare by staking out free speech zones, throwing up barriers and barbed wire, and gathering up insurance coverage to insulate themselves from the financial penalties of mass arrests of protesters who have every right to protest, but not to disrupt the proceedings in Cleveland and Philadelphia.

     We protect political speech above all others, so that the most robust and vigorous exchange of views about public policy and government conduct can take place. But even as the passions and rhetoric run hot around presidential politics, freedom of expression does not empower anyone to silence other speakers as a means of dominating the "marketplace of ideas."

     And, we return after the Fourth to a nation more religiously diverse than ever before — and as a result, a nation as challenged as ever before to live up to the First Amendment's guarantee of no official favor or disfavor of any faith. In a time when terror comes wrapped in misplaced religious claims, we can carry forward Independence Day sentiments by rejecting the emotional or politically expedient calls to lower — or abandon — that gold standard of religious liberty.

     How else to live year-round in the spirit of the Fourth? Support free expression for our younger citizens. While this year's SOFA survey showed strong support for adults and college students to speak freely, pushing back against those who would "protect" others from hearing that which might offend, just 35 percent support such rights for high school students.

     But how do we expect the next generation of national leaders to have a strong sense and native understanding of freedom if we deny it at the very time we are concluding the educational effort to provide a solid base for lifelong learning?

     If we were to transform Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" into a First Amendment mid-summer tale, let us all leave behind the July Fourth "fall off" of old and resolve to keep the spirit and understanding of free expression and religious liberty in our hearts year-round.

     No "humbug!" to that, I would hope.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.