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