The Duncan Banner

July 1, 2012

What are these ‘freedoms’ Americans are celebrating?

Jeff Kaley
The Duncan Banner

DUNCAN — It’s the nation’s birthday once again and while the charcoal is heating up on Wednesday, you need to get a lively discussion going to kill some time. Right?

Last week, there was plenty of debate fodder created when the Supreme Court made rulings on two crucial and controversial constitutional cases. As you would expect, the results of those rulings have brought out every amateur constitutional expert in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.

Well, since the Fourth of July is the day we celebrate our freedoms, here’s a topic: Ask the folks you’re hanging out with to name all five of the freedoms our esteemed Founding Fathers put in the First Amendment.

If you and they can’t quite do it, y’all aren’t alone.

Since 1997, the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. and the American Journalism Review have conducted an annual poll focused on our freedoms. In the 2011 State of the First Amendment report, which is the most recent survey compiled, only 5 percent of Americans could name all five First Amendment freedoms.

Obviously, that’s not very many — although it’s a higher percentage than the median of 2 percent in the previous 13 surveys.

What I find disturbing about the First Amendment quiz is that 30 percent couldn’t name any of the freedoms we supposedly hold so dear.

The only First Amendment freedom a majority of those surveyed knew was freedom of speech, which was recognized by 62 percent of respondents. From there, the public knowledge of our basic rights craters.

Freedom of religion was named by 19 percent of those surveyed, and 17 percent said freedom of the press, which is discouraging to those of us with a press card.

Just 14 percent knew freedom of assembly was a constitutional guarantee, while a mere 3 percent identified the right to petition the government.

While 30 percent of those surveyed couldn’t name one of the First Amendment freedoms, almost 56 percent listed the “right to privacy.” Problem is: there is no “right to privacy” mentioned anywhere in The Constitution.

There are several court opinions supporting the notion a “right to privacy” is at least implied in The Constitution, but doing anything you want in the privacy of your home is not constitutionally protected.

In addition to questions about the First Amendment, the annual survey also includes questions on how we apply our freedoms and rights. In the 2011 survey, several questions dealt with the press, and the responses were a mixed bag.

The survey reports a combined 76 percent felt it was either strongly or mildly important to our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government. However, that apparently means 24 percent of us don’t care if anyone rides herd on elected officials.

Asked if the news media tries to report the news without bias, 17 percent strongly agreed and 16 percent mildly agreed. However, 47 percent strongly disagreed and 19 percent mildly disagreed.

When the survey began in 2004, 15 percent strongly agreed and 24 percent mildly agreed the media presents news without bias. The number of people who strongly believe the media is biased has risen steadily since 2007.

While debate on whether the media slants the news is as old as the nation, I think the continual rise in skepticism is fueled by 24-hour TV news channels like Fox News, MSNBC and CNN, and talk radio, where opinion gets morphed into “news.”

As the nation becomes more polarized by partisan politics, the gray area surrounding fact and opinion not only erodes public confidence in the media, it’s also entrenches the populace into camps of distrust.

Conservatives swear by what they hear and see on Fox News, while liberals tune into MSNBC to get the “truth.” CNN is now attempting to present itself as a moderate source, trying to fill a void in balance. But according to recent Gallup polls, that’s not working out so well.

Maybe a growing number of Americans don’t really want “balance” in reporting, as much as they want their political view validated.

Is that true?

Hard to say. But it’s something to mull that over while we’re celebrating our freedoms — freedoms that many of us can’t even name.

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