Tom Eblen

Constitutional freedoms form U.S. foundation

Last week, we marked the seventh anniversary of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This week, we should note an even more significant milestone.

Wednesday marks the 221st anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, the document that is the foundation of America's bold experiment in self-government.

Ironically, when the Constitution was signed on Sept. 17, 1787, it didn't include the most important part: The first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights. That's because many Founding Fathers didn't think it was necessary to spell out citizens' rights and liberties.

James Madison, the future president, was among those who insisted that a Bill of Rights was essential. He waged a tireless four-year political battle that has been chronicled in the book James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights by Richard Labunski, a University of Kentucky professor.

It's a good thing Madison succeeded.

Over the years, some presidents and other powerful officials have found the Constitution an inconvenient obstacle to achieving their goals. In most cases, the U.S. Supreme Court reeled them in, as it did with some of President Bush's efforts to subvert the Constitution.

While I worry about rogue leaders who trample on citizens' rights and freedoms, I worry even more about citizens who don't seem to care.

The University of Kentucky's Scripps Howard First Amendment Center will mark the Constitution's anniversary Tuesday and Wednesday with programs highlighting the First Amendment.

I've always considered the First Amendment the most important part of the Constitution. In many ways, its 45 words sum up what makes America great: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

I'm shocked by how many people think the First Amendment gives Americans too much freedom. You know who I mean: the people who think religious freedom should apply to one faith but not another, and those who think some speech should be silenced, or that the government should be able to tell journalists what they can or can't report.

Such attitudes are reflected in an annual poll conducted by the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The 2008 poll will be released Wednesday, but the center's executive director, Gene Policinski, gave me a preview. The national telephone survey of 1,005 adults was conducted between July 23 and Aug. 3, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Policinski said 21 percent of Americans think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. And about 40 percent think the press has too much freedom.

I find that frightening, not so much because I'm a journalist, but because I'm a citizen.

Still, it's an improvement over what people told pollsters during those scary post-911, Patriot Act days, when twice as many people thought First Amendment freedoms should be curbed.

Policinski attributes much of the public's negative attitudes toward press freedom to well-publicized incidents of bad journalism. "But, then, newspapers are one of the few institutions in our society that correct their problems in full view of the public," he said.

Another factor is perceptions of "bias" in the media, both left and right. Those perceptions have increased in recent years as the role of journalism has been blurred — especially on cable TV and talk radio — by media companies and personalities more interested in advocacy, ideology, entertainment and profit than good journalism.

This is a tough time for the traditional news media — newspapers, magazines, television and radio. Digital technology and a slumping economy have taken away some of the advertising revenue that has always supported good journalism.

Nobody has figured out yet how to make much money with Internet journalism, but the technology itself could prove to be best thing that ever happened to free speech and press. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can now have a worldwide voice.

The First Amendment Center's poll found that the percentage of Americans getting most of their news online has grown from 2 percent in 1997 to 17 percent. And most of those polled said online news can be just as good as news delivered in more traditional forms.

That's good news for news organizations as they shift more content online. But it also means citizens must become more sophisticated and able to sort credible information from spin and propaganda.

Most of those surveyed thought bloggers deserve the same rights as traditional journalists. In many ways, bloggers are the 21st-century equivalent of the 18th-century pamphleteers the Founding Fathers had in mind when they ensured freedom of the press.

Our nation's challenge now is to protect Internet free speech from government censorship and business manipulation. But for that to happen, citizens must understand that it matters — and that the future of American democracy may depend on it.