Friday, November 27, 2015

The First Amendment Under Attack

Does the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution go to far? Depending on which survey you believe, anywhere from 20% to 35% think it does! Perhaps worse, many citizens do not even know what it says. One survey found that 33% had no idea what that amendment protects. Of those who did have some knowledge, 19% did not know that it protects freedom or religion and only 10% knew that it protects freedom of the press. (

Perhaps that ignorance is behind the lack of free speech on many college campuses, and the Democrats in the Senate proposing an amendment to weaken the protections that amendment provides. (cf Both ignorance of and attempts to modify the first amendment threaten our freedom and the right of voters to the information they need to vote wisely.

It is ironic that those wanting to weaken first amendment protections aim mostly at restriction on political speech. Most have no objection to protecting the nastiest sexual films or most violent movies. Most of them even want to continue to protect “gangsta rap” which glorifies street gangs, misogyny, and other anti-social actions. Yet they want to restrict the people's ability to engage in public discussion about the merits or demerits of politicians and political measures – the exact thing the first amendment was designed to protect. Without that protection, rulers can keep the people ignorant of opposing information and viewpoints.

We can, of course, understand why politicians and their fellow travelers want to restrict political speech. It would make their lives so much easier. Every tyrant wants to do that; and even some who consider themselves just smarter than the average citizen prefer not to have to deal with reasons they might be wrong.

Nor is the restriction on free speech limited to politics. The “political correctness” (PC) movement, started with good intent, now attempts to restrict even the discussion of some ideas, or the use of some words not previously thought pejorative. Now many perfectly good words are called “code words for racism.” Failure to enthusiastically support someone's preferred cause can get one labeled as a racist or worse. For example, anyone stating that all lives matter is called racist. In the minds of some, that phrase should be limited to only black lives.

That PC movement is especially strong on many college campuses. Students have been threatened, and professors have lost their jobs for simple lack of enthusiasm for the issue of the day. Professors are prohibited from discussing certain ideas and required to issue “trigger warnings” if they expect to mention any word or idea someone might conceivably find offensive – and their students are experts at finding things offensive.

What will this do to our country? Open discussion and evaluation of ideas has catalyzed tremendous progress, and universities have been the major venue for generating and evaluating information and ideas. In the past, they did that by encouraging open discussion and by checking theory against empirical evidence. Today, too many ideas are not allowed on campus. Meanwhile, other ideas are considered gospel, no discussion or evaluation allowed, they must be considered correct. That narrow-mindedness will block progress, it threatens to plunge us into a dark age.

Anyone who values freedom or real progress must oppose limits on free expression. That means we must not give in to the PC crowd, nor can we afford to support any college or university that restricts free discussion and evaluation of ideas. And of course we must oppose any restriction on political speech.

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