Jewish World Review Sept. 27, 2002 / 21 Tishrei 5763

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Consumer Reports

Sometimes freedom is a necessary nuisance | NASHVILLE Want to have a little lively fun at a party? Ask people if they can name all five of the "freedoms" in the First Amendment.

If you cannot quite do it, you're not alone. In the latest of their annual polls on our freedoms conducted by the First Amendment Center and the American Journalism Review, only 2 percent of Americans could name all five.

What I find more disturbing is that no more than 58 percent could name even one!

That was the percentage that named "freedom of speech."

After that, the responses dropped way off. "Freedom of religion" was mentioned by 18 percent. Then came freedom of the press (14 percent), "right of assembly" (10 percent) and the one that almost everyone forgot (including me) the right to petition the government (2 percent.)

For a parlor game, such responses are amusing and revealing and, sometimes frightening.

For example, the Nashville-based First Amendment Center's poll found that nearly half of Americans think that our constitutional freedoms of speech and press, among others, go too far.

About 49 percent of those surveyed said they think the First Amendment gives us too much freedom, up from 39 percent last year and 22 percent in the year 2000.

More than 40 percent said newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U. S. military's strategy and performance.

About half said the news media have been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism.

More than 40 percent said they would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of government military policy.

About half said government should be able to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security, even if it means infringing upon religious freedom.

More than four in 10 said the government should have greater power to monitor the activities of Muslims living in the United States than it does other religious groups.

What this poll tells me is that a lot of Americans are afraid. Very afraid.

"Fear can short-circuit freedom," writes Ken Paulson, executive director of the Nashville-based First Amendment Center. "From Abraham Lincoln's suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, our nation sometimes has lost sight of its commitment to freedom. Fear does that."

People don't want to be troubled by too many questions when they are scared. I have received quite few letters and e-mails from readers who quote the old World War II line, "Loose lips sink ships," as if it were gospel to justify self-censorship and the excessive government secrecy sometimes practiced by the Bush administration.

Sorry, folks, but democracy doesn't work that way. Benjamin Franklin tried to tell that to the Pennsylvania governor in 1755, when he wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Indeed. We all have a responsibility to keep our leaders accountable or we all share the blame when our leaders mess up.

Some people apparently do not wish to be troubled by too many facts. They would rather live with the questions. It is no wonder, then, that the news-and-opinion media are so unpopular in polls. It is a big part of our job as news and opinion writers to provoke people, to try to get answers or try to encourage our audiences to think.

After all, what good is the First Amendment if we Americans don't use it?

Some people sound troubled to see reporters questioning government officials about sensitive matters. I have a different feeling. I am reassured by it. To face reporters' questions shows me that our leaders are trying, at least, to look and sound accountable. There are no stupid questions, in my view, only stupid answers.

Nevertheless, I am optimistic that when Americans think these issues through, they come out for more freedoms, not less.

About 40 percent of the 1,000 adults who were surveyed said they have too little access to information about the government's war on terrorism, while only 16 percent believe there is too much.

And, when asked how important they thought each right to be, 68 percent gave the right "to be informed by a free press" the top rating of "essential," which is what an even larger 75 percent called the freedom of speech.

That sounds about right. First Amendment freedoms sound like a nuisance sometimes but they are a nuisance that we Americans really don't want to do without.

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