Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Sickly State of the First Amendment

by Nat Hentoff

Cato Institute
November 17, 2010

The premier historian of the Bill of Rights, professor Leonard Levy, explained why our Constitution was not fully operative until the first 10 amendments became part of it: "We have a Bill of Rights because the state, even the democratic state, cannot be trusted. A Bill of Rights is a bill of restraint against the state."

A consensus of polls — and the daily news — reveal a deep distrust of Congress and of this president, as was also true of his predecessor. Accordingly, the state of health of the First Amendment, from which all our individual liberties against the state flow — freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and persistent petition of government for redress of grievances — is vital to all of us. Our voices need to be heard.

Every year, I watch for the State of the First Amendment national survey by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and in Washington. In Name That Freedom (New York Times, Oct. 24), John Schwartz concisely and disturbingly reports on the most recent survey by the Center:

While 61 percent of those surveyed this year knew that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, just 23 percent volunteered that it also supports freedom of religion, and 18 percent cited freedom of the press. Freedom of association? Fourteen percent. Only 6 percent of those polled could cite the right to petition the government for grievances, the fifth major freedom guaranteed under the First Amendment.

How many of you knew the First Amendment's five freedoms?