Recalling Rights

First Amendment Rights Under Attack

September 8, 2006

by Valerie Orleans

According to a survey by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum, only 28 percent of Americans are able to name more than one of the five First Amendment freedoms. In comparison, 52 percent could name at least two family members from the TV series "The Simpsons."

Only 14 percent of Americans — and only 57 percent of journalists — can name freedom of the press as a right in the First Amendment, according to a national poll conducted last year by the University of Connecticut.

The five freedoms (just in case you forgot) are: freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and the right to petition for redress of grievances.

When the Constitution was originally written, these rights weren't included because the writers felt it was unnecessary to list such ideals. American citizens, however, wanted them guaranteed. And, so, the First Amendment became the first of the 10 amendments that would make up the Bill of Rights.

Imagine what this country would be like without the First Amendment. It's not that far-fetched. In the University of Connecticut poll, 43 percent of Americans said they believed the press has "too much freedom."

Rick Pullen, dean of the College of Communications, has taught communications law to CSUF students for 33 years, and as vice president of the California First Amendment Coalition, he has an abiding interest in how the First Amendment is interpreted.

"When our Founding Fathers were developing the system of laws for this country, they fervently believed in the necessity of free speech and a free press," he said. "The First Amendment protects our freedom and democracy. As a journalist, and then a professor, I was always drawn to the First Amendment."

More recently, the First Amendment, particularly freedom of the press, has been under fire with interpretations that have caused concern.

In the University of Connecticut study, 22 percent of respondents said they believed that government should be able to censor newspapers.

"The First Amendment gives us freedom, but I believe with that freedom comes concomitant obligations," Pullen said.

"That's where responsibility comes in. The media should weigh the value of publishing or broadcasting a piece against the harm or hurt it might cause. For instance, some Muslims were offended when several newspapers published cartoons portraying Muhammad.

"However, this is not to say that offensive speech should be censored. Quite the opposite," Pullen said. "In fact, the First Amendment was written to protect unpopular speech because popular speech needs no protection."

Pullen pointed to the recent controversy involving the movie "The Da Vinci Code," which he said offended many Catholics and Protestants. Because speech offends or is unpopular doesn't mean it should be censored, he said.

"Of course, when we find something objectionable or offensive we have a First Amendment right to voice opinions, even to protest loudly. But, we don't have a right to threaten somebody with bodily harm or harm their property because we disagree with them," Pullen added.

There are some limits, guidelines and laws. The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act prohibits profanity on the air (and backs that up with steep fines to discourage offenders). There are rating systems to warn movie-viewers of material they may find offensive. There are libel and slander laws that provide recourse to someone who has been damaged by a story. But, for the most part, America has been recognized as a country where press and speech freedoms are broadly protected.

"The First Amendment basically allows us to continue as an open and democratic society," Pullen said. "While our First Amendment laws may allow communication that we disagree with or may find offensive, you only need to look back a few decades to the McCarthy era to see the harm that can occur when our First Amendment rights were under attack."

During that era, First Amendment rights were impeded, presumably because of security concerns. Since then, news organizations remain ever vigilant of such threats, as in the recent case of journalists (Judith Miller of the New York Times, Matthew Cooper of Time Magazine, Robert Novak, a syndicated columnist) who published stories based on confidential sources. The issue brought up the right of journalists to protect confidential sources.

"We have to recognize the ethics of what we do," Pullen said, adding that whether the journalists' sources provided accurate information or sought to mislead the American public is up for debate. "Simply because we have the right to say something doesn't always mean we should. The First Amendment has been interpreted differently by judges over the years. As I've always said, the law doesn't change. The judges who interpret it do. There are times when we need to adjust and be flexible to the new demands of the communications revolution in which we are immersed. But, we also need to remind ourselves at all times that our freedoms can go away if we don't pay attention."


Rick Pullen
Rick Pullen