Let freedom ring: our First Amendment freedoms, specifically

By Tom Moore
Staff Writer

As a responsible newsman, I take the protection of the Constitution and Bill of Rights seriously. There has been so much emphasis in the news lately on the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – that the average citizen seems to forget the protections we all enjoy under the First Amendment.

The First Amendment covers so much more than that freedom of speech. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.

I shudder every time I hear someone say they are biting their tongue because they are afraid they might offend someone. The entire purpose of freedom of speech is to protect our right to offensive, controversial and opinionated speech. If our speech were always monitored, polite and agreeable, there would be no reason to protect it. As Martin Luther King said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

Now, this is not to say that I support people being intentionally mean and bigoted, but as former President Obama said, “We can disagree with each other’s opinions without being disagreeable.”

A national survey conducted by The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in 2014 found that “While a majority of citizens indicate that they respect the First Amendment, a significant percentage seem inclined to rewrite it.”

Among the key findings:

  • For the first time in the polling, almost half of those surveyed said that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. About 49 percent said the First Amendment gives us too much freedom, up from 39 percent last year.
  • The least popular First Amendment right is freedom of the press. Forty-two percent of respondents said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, roughly the same level as the previous year’s survey.
  • More than 40 percent said newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military about its strategy and performance.
  • Roughly half of those surveyed said the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism.
  • More than four in 10 said they would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of military policy.
  • About half of those surveyed said the government should be able to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security, even if that means infringing upon religious freedom.
  • More than four in 10 said the government should have greater power to monitor the activities of Muslims living in the United States than it does other religious groups.

This is not just scary, it is also dangerous. The entire purpose of the press is to bring government and corporate corruption and scandal into the light. We as journalists have a sworn duty to investigate scandal, root out corruption, and keep the citizens informed of what is going on behind the scenes. The fact that America’s own citizens think we should be restricted from investigating the military should be a red flag right there.

Another thing that disturbs me is that four in 10 wanted to limit the academic freedom of professors. No.The entire purpose of the college experience is to take you outside your comfort zone, expand your horizons and make you think.

According to my Constitutional Law professor, Randy Bobbitt, “If you are not made uncomfortable at least once in your college career, you should march up to the registrar and demand your money back.”  But I’ve seen it myself, even in my brief four-year stint here at UWF: Professors are starting to put disclaimers up. One class I attended even required the students to sign a waiver, saying that some of the content could be offensive and that I wouldn’t hold the professor or the university responsible.

And so, in this month when we remember of one of the greatest Civil Rights heroes in this country, let us look back upon how many brave Americans have given their very lives for the freedoms that we as Americans take for granted. We as the citizens of this great nation cannot afford to take them for granted any longer. We owe it to those brave men and women who came before us to continue to be ever vigilant and to stay informed of what is going on around us. Then and only then will Martin Luther King’s “dream” come true. When we celebrate each other’s differences, when we embrace each other’s culture, when we openly and wholeheartedly judge a man not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character…  Then and only then shall we truly be free.