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Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 1999 /13 Kislev, 5760

Nat Hentoff

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Pleading the First -- ON OCT. 23, 18 silent Ku Klux Klan members gathered at Foley Square in New York City to exercise their First Amendment right to demonstrate. They could not vocalize their views because the courts had denied them sound equipment.

They were allowed to wear hoods but not masks because the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had upheld an 1845 New York state law forbidding masks at public demonstrations -- as if anonymous political speech were not part of the nation's tradition from pre-Revolutionary times on.

Some parents brought their children to gawk or rail at the bigots. A number of the kids, however, got a vivid First Amendment lesson when a young woman in the crowd said of the Klan members, "This is America. They have a right to speak."

A mob of counter-demonstrators surrounded her, kicked and spat at her, and as the New York Times reported the next day, beat her on the head with flags. But they didn't burn the flags. After some 15 punches, she fell. Just in time, she escaped into the Municipal Building.

This contempt for the First Amendment rights of hateful people should not be surprising. Recently, the Freedom Forum of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University -- along with the University of Connecticut's Center for Survey Research and Analysis -- asked, by phone, 1,001 Americans 18 years or older around the country their views of the First Amendment.

Just over half of the respondents recalled having had a class in the First Amendment somewhere along the line in grade school, high school or college. Forty-seven percent said they had not. Two years ago, those polled were asked how many rated their education about the First Amendment "excellent." Four percent answered affirmatively, but 63 percent said that part of their education was poor or "only fair."

These responses as to their education appear to be accurate in that 78 percent "would not allow the public use of words that racial groups might find offensive," and 57 percent believe that the public display of some art that might be considered offensive should not be allowed.

As for the press, 53 percent of those surveyed believe that it has too much freedom, indicating a rising distrust of the media: Two years ago, only 38 percent thought the press should be restrained. However, later polling showed that those hostile to the press had dropped to 42 percent.

One response did surprise me. I had not realized there was sizable doubt that newspapers should be able to endorse or criticize political candidates. However, only 35 percent strongly agreed, and 28 percent mildly agreed.

Of particular interest is the important presence of a comma in that section of the First Amendment that speaks of "freedom of speech, or of the press."

When asked which rights guaranteed by the Constitution are most important to them, 50 percent said "freedom of speech." But only 6 percent cited "freedom of the press."

This disparity, says the First Amendment Center, may be due "to a perception that freedom of the press belongs to the press while freedom of speech is a right that belongs to individuals."

The center does not explain the disparity between this greater respect for freedom of speech with the thumping disapproval of public speech that racial groups might find offensive.

Some of the results, however, are encouraging. Sixty-seven percent said that courtroom trials should be televised, as contrasted with 51 percent two years ago. An even greater number -- 73 percent -- believe they should have access, through television, to oral arguments before the most distant of all government bodies, the Supreme Court of the United States.

Maybe those justices who so prize their personal privacy -- allowing them to go largely unrecognized by the public whose lives they may affect for generations -- will reflect on this legitimate interest by their fellow citizens in how they make their fateful judgments.

Particularly, the usually thoughtful Justice David Souter might reconsider what he once told a House subcommittee: "The day you see a camera coming into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body." It is the nation's courtroom.

The most fundamental and disturbing lesson of this survey, however, is the pervasive miseducation in our schools about the liberties and rights of Americans, all of which flow from the First Amendment.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Ammendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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©1999, NEA