When it comes to our freedoms, is a "C+" grade good enough?

Apr 27, 2017

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

A new "First Amendment Report Card," released by the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute, gives our First Amendment freedoms — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — a barely passing grade.

The grades were assigned by 15 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.

Assembly and petition — the rights to gather peaceably with like-minded people without government restriction or prosecution, and ask the government for changes in policies and practices — received the highest marks, at a "B-." Religion and speech were graded at a "C+," while press was given a "C."

On press, for example, panelists pointed to President Trump's campaign threat to "open up" libel laws in order to more easily sue media outlets; the administration blocking certain news organizations from attending White House briefings; the "fake news" phenomenon; and the president's general enmity for the press.

Assembly and petition received the highest grades, with panelists noting that recent protests and political marches were classic demonstrations of both freedoms, and that the government took no action to crack down on them or the resulting media coverage.

Perhaps you — or I, since I didn't participate in the grading — might have rated the freedoms differently. Good. That would mean we were thinking critically about those basic freedoms, which define us as citizens and enable our democracy to function as such.

And no doubt some will say that in a contentious world, and with an electorate split straight down the middle on most issues, it would be too much to expect a more favorable assessment of the First Amendment.

But I'll admit that a "C+" leaves me uneasy.

For too long, too many of us have either taken those freedoms for granted, assuming that they will always be there, or considered them in narrow ways (believing, for example, that freedom of speech is not for those with whom we disagree, or that so-called fringe faiths are not really covered by freedom of religion).

Many more of us live in ignorance of the freedoms that were so dearly won. Each year, when results of the First Amendment Center's State of the First Amendment survey are released, the survey consistently finds that large numbers of Americans — sometimes more than one-third — cannot name a single freedom provided by the 225-year old amendment.

The report card, titled "The First Amendment in the Age of Trump," nonetheless reflects issues that are not limited to the president's first 100 days, or to the time he spends in office.

Some of those issues have been simmering for years. The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements raised issues around speech, assembly and petition to new levels of awareness. The "culture wars" around matters of faith — from the silly, such as whether to call them "Christmas" or "Holiday" trees, to the very serious, such as federal policies that may discriminate against Muslims — have raged for decades, and show no signs of abating.

Surveys dating well back into the 1990s chart a growing public apprehension about the credibility, motives and bias of the news media, and a worrisome erosion of support for the press's role as a "watchdog on government." Amidst worsening public opinion, journalists have also had to contend with shrinking resources as they attempt to track government officials' performance and measure government effectiveness.

The quarterly report card is not intended, and could not be, the final word on our First Amendment freedoms — the issues are too complex and the disputes too numerous, and filled with far too many twists and turns.

But the grading system will serve to call our attention, particularly over time, to a need to defend one or more freedoms from momentary threats and longer-term assaults on our free expression and religious liberty rights.

Stay tuned — a new First Amendment Report Card will be issued each quarter, prompting us all to take a closer look at how we understand, defend and practice our First Amendment freedoms. And maybe one day we'll get to add another grading area — one where you and I and our fellow citizens get an "A" for effort.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter:@genefac.