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Archive for Monday, September 2, 2002

Proud principles

September 2, 2002

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Americans should defend, not diminish, the freedoms that make this nation great.

Labor Day isn't one of America's most patriotic holidays. It's a well-deserved tribute to the workers who made and continue to make this country great, but it doesn't usually trigger as many flag-waving tributes as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day or even Veterans Day.

As the anniversary of the deadly attacks of Sept. 11 approaches, however, there is considerable debate about some of the basic freedoms Americans enjoy and, today, it's worth celebrating not only the workers but the principles that have built and sustained America.

Many Americans, especially those of us in the news media, tend to think that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was placed atop the Bill of Rights for a reason. Having learned from the tyranny of repressive governments that there is no principle more important to democracy than the right to speak freely, the founders made this Amendment No. 1:

"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."

It's disconcerting therefore, to see the results of a recent poll commissioned by the First Amendment Center showing that almost half, 49 percent, of Americans think the First Amendment goes too far. A similar percentage thought the U.S. government should have the freedom to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security and that the media had been too aggressive in asking the government questions about the war on terrorism.

These numbers are considerably higher than those in a 2001 survey presumably because of Americans' concern about national security following the Sept. 11 attacks. But before Americans promote the idea of constricting their First Amendment rights, there are a couple of issues they should consider.

First, if the media doesn't ask the questions, who will? There is an old saying, often used derogatorily, about "people who buy ink by the barrel." The term refers to the power of large newspapers and, in the modern age, other news outlets. Some people may resent the freedom of the news media, but that freedom allows them to take on challengers  including the powerful federal government  that individual citizens couldn't touch. Single voices can be shoved aside or silenced by a repressive government. A courageous free press is a more formidable foe.

The other assumption that Americans may make when they voice acceptance of more restrictions and monitoring is that they personally never will be the objects of such scrutiny. They feel safe in the belief that mainstream American philosophies are closely enough aligned with their own ideology that only other people  you know, threatening people  would be affected. In the battle of us-against-them, the "us" always will be in control.

It's a false sense of security. This is a strong nation, but every time it becomes harder to freely voice a belief or opinion, we diminish American freedom. It's tempting to try to silence people we view as offensive or suspicious or hold people we believe are dangerous, but our democratic system is built on the fact that they  and, in some cases, we  are free to express their views and go about their lives unless a threat can be proven.

It's one thing for patriotism to pull a nation together out of pride. It's something quite different to be pulled together by fear. America should stand proudly on the principles that made this nation great rather than cower in fear against the people who might want to destroy it.

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