Learn, teach the Constitution’s message of freedom

By Corey Friedman

A senseless act of terror that killed three people and injured more than 250 others could lead to limits on individual rights that make the “land of the free” less so.Stock Photo of the Consitution of the United States and Feather Quill

A survey gauging Americans’ awareness of and support for the five First Amendment rights — speech, religion, press, assembly and petition — suggests that the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15 have made some of us more likely to restrict those rights.

Roughly a third of Americans — 34 percent — said the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, according to the 2013 State of the First Amendment survey. That’s a steep increase from 2012, when just 13 percent thought we had too much freedom.

In its report, the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University attributes this significant shift to heightened fear of terrorism, noting that the survey was conducted the month after the Boston bombings.

“This jump in the percentage of individuals who think the First Amendment goes too far represents Americans’ increased willingness to give up their rights and freedoms in return for greater security when they feel threatened,” the report states. “An even greater increase in willingness to trade freedom for security occurred after the September 2011 terrorist attacks.”

That discouraging trend is worth pointing out today, when we commemorate the United States Constitution’s signing on Sept. 17, 1787. The Bill of Rights and the freedoms it guarantees were controversial 226 years ago, and this survey shows us those rights are just as radical and relevant today.

We’re reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s oft-recited words: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Franklin, a signer of both the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, understood that opponents needn’t storm Washington and lower the star-spangled banner to destroy the America he helped build. Enemies of freedom can chip away at our liberty incrementally, year by year, law by overreaching law.

Another cause for concern is the increasing number of young Americans who are less tolerant of others’ liberty than their elders. The 2013 First Amendment Center survey shows that nearly half of 18-to-30-year-olds — 47 percent — think the First Amendment goes too far. The figure falls to 44 percent for 31-45-year-olds, 24 percent of 46-60-year-olds and 23 percent of adults 60 and older.

We don’t think the nation’s public schools are doing enough to teach our youth about civics and citizenship if the First Amendment makes nearly half of recent high school grads uneasy.

How many schools in Wilson County and throughout North Carolina teach students that a 1967 Supreme Court decision — Tinker v. Des Moines — affirms their First Amendment right to engage in political protest at school so long as they don’t disrupt the educational process?

Any answer other than “all of them” ought to be unacceptable.

Thirty-six percent of Americans can’t name a single one of the five First Amendment rights, according to the 2013 survey. About six in 10 could name freedom of speech, but only 4 percent could name the right to petition.

That ought to serve as a wake-up call this Constitution Day. We can’t preserve and defend constitutional rights if we’re not even sure what those rights are.

Taking the time to learn — and teach others — about the Constitution is the best way to ensure its guarantees of personal freedom will endure for generations to come.

[Note: This post was originally written for The Wilson Times.]

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