Looking at Liberty
A recent opinion survey shows that that 47 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 30 agree with the statement that the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights that it guarantees.” The results are from an annual national survey of American attitudes about the First Amendment conducted by The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, based at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The same poll indicates that 34 percent of all Americans, regardless of age, share the same belief about First Amendment rights. This is an increase of 13 percent over the results collected last year, and the biggest year-over-year increase since the First Amendment Center started conducting the annual poll in 1997.
These survey results should be a sobering wake up call to everyone who recognizes the critical importance of the many rights protected by the First Amendment. After all, the First Amendment is our basic constitutional protection for five critically important and fundamental freedoms: the freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom to petition the government.
By the way, if you weren’t aware that the First Amendment protects much more than just “free speech” you’re not alone. The same survey also reveals that a large majority of Americans are not aware of all the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. When asked to name the five specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, only the freedom of speech was named by a majority of respondents (59 percent). None of the other First Amendment protections of our fundamental freedoms garnered even a quarter of the responses. The reported results for persons able to name at least one of the other protected rights were for freedom of religion, 24 percent; for freedom of the press, 14 percent; for freedom of peaceful assembly, 11 percent: and for freedom to petition government, 4 percent. Over a third of the respondents, 36 percent, could not name any of the five specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
In a press release responding to the poll results, First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson stated “It’s unsettling to see a third of Americans view the First Amendment as providing too much liberty…. This underscores the need for more First Amendment education…. If we truly understand the essential role of these freedoms in a democracy, we’re more likely to protect them.”
I believe that our First Amendment rights, particularly those pertaining to freedom of expression, are simply the most important of our civil rights. It’s a view I proudly share with our country’s founders who also believed that the open and free exchange of ideas was necessary for the survival of a representative democracy. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.” Eloquently echoing this view, the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote, “The framers knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny.”
Many political observers, myself included, believe that we, as a country, as private individuals, and even as a species, are headed into what will likely be one of the most challenging eras in human history because of the manifold dangers to our liberties, our health, and even potentially even to the survival our species, presented by technologies developing much more rapidly than our ability to reasonably control them. In 2003 I published an online multimedia presentation that graphically depicts some of these concerns at DoomsdayCurve.com. Since I first published the Doomsday Curve, we have entered into a shadowed world in which privacy has become an endangered species and government surveillance of its citizens through sophisticated technology has risen to a level that Hitler’s SS could only have dreamed about.
Looking forward, before long, tiny robotic spy or assassin drone technologies, already being developed, will almost certainly be deployed by many governments, including, unfortunately, ours. Thanks to advancements in nanotechnology, these devices will likely be further miniaturized to create microscopic robotic spying and killing machines. And, as I predicted in the Doomsday Curve, by the second half of this century, species-, racial-, ethnic- and even personally- targeted viral weapons will likely be used by governments, terrorists, criminal organizations, and even, eventually, lone individuals.
For me, it is alarming that a large number of our fellow citizens have become so terrorized by the fear of terrorism that they openly embrace, and even advocate, the wholesale sacrifice of cherished freedoms to obtain a “promise” of greater security. I believe the First Amendment Center survey reflects this troubling trend. But to exchange freedoms that have taken thousands of years to win for the “promise” of a bit more security is, and always has been, nothing more than a devil’s bargain. Benjamin Franklin knew this when he admonished his countrymen at a time of much greater danger to our then fragile union with the following warning: “He who gives up essential liberty for a little temporary security deserves neither liberty nor security.” Unfortunately, it seems, the numbers of those willing to give up their freedom for a promise of a little temporary security are increasing, but not nearly as fast as the development of the technological means to accommodate their willingness to surrender their freedom.
A lot of people, myself included, have thought that the human race was very, very fortunate that the development of nuclear weapons followed the fall of the Nazis rather than preceding their rise. Without a doubt in terms of historic time, that was one hell of a close call. But it has often been said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And I am very concerned that we Americans and the other citizens of the world’s democracies didn’t fully appreciate how close the bullet was that humanity dodged. One thing for sure, we sure did not take appropriate steps to prepare for a future in which a damning technology could precede the next tyrant’s rise, whoever or whatever that tyrant might be. Because of this, I fear that the process, now well under way, is much, much more than just a “loss of privacy”. There may not yet be a new tyrant on the scene, but like a room full of methane needing only a spark for an explosion, I think the conditions are now fully set for the greatest assault on human freedom in history.
Many believe that reversing the trend of the ever increasing erosion of our freedoms is so unlikely that if it is accomplished it will be tantamount to a miracle. But, unlikely is not the same as impossible. And it is the sheer genius of the founders in providing robust protection for human thought and expression in the First Amendment, that they created a system that can successfully confront any challenge to our freedom, no matter improbable or unlikely a successful outcome might seem.
Our founders created a successful idea and information creation and protection system that is, in my opinion, very analogous to another rather successful information system that has unfailingly worked far longer than the entire history of our country, and longer even than the history of our species. What I am referring to is the information system that has preserved and ensured the survival of life on this planet for over three billion years through the passage of genetic information from one generation to the next via a remarkable molecule, deoxyribonucleic acid, better known as DNA.
Thanks to DNA, there has been an unbroken chain of life on this planet for more than 3.6 billion years. This is due in large part to the way the DNA system of information transmission uses corrupted information. It is a system that has a built in “tolerance” for corrupted information.
The corrupted information often produces mutated genes, which, in turn, produces mutant organisms that usually either die or are disadvantaged in their environment compared to normal organisms. But every now and then the corrupted information produces an organism that is better suited to the environment than the “normal” ones. And sometimes, such as when the environment rapidly or dramatically changes, it may be only a mutant organism with just the right survival characteristic resulting from corrupted genetic information that survives when all else dies. Because of the DNA system’s robust tolerance for corrupted information, at life’s most critical moments, times of past mass extinctions, most of the Earth’s living organisms died, but the lucky mutants that resulted from corrupted genetic data lived to carry on the DNA system and enable life to flourish again. You might say that we are all here because of corrupted genetic data.
I believe that our society and culture, and each of us individually, derive analogous benefits from the robust protection of ideas and expression provided by the First Amendment. This is because the First Amendment not only protects popular and “high value” expression, it also protects unpopular and “low value” expression. For many, for example, explicit sexual depictions, crude religious criticism, and offensive speech might be viewed as low-value expression. Analogizing this to the DNA system, one might even view the ideas behind such expression that are out of “the norm” as “mutant” ideas. I think the analogy is not unreasonable considering that those seeking to suppress radically new or unpopular ideas often do so by literally warning that such ideas are a “corruption” of our beliefs or our way of life, etc., and that their adoption will bring the downfall of us all.
But by guaranteeing that almost all types of expression will be protected, including even disfavored expression, the First Amendment provides the opportunity for unpopular or “mutant” ideas to be heard. And like mutant organisms, sometimes unpopular or disfavored ideas turn out to be the better ideas. It is even possible that an unpopular or mutant idea may someday provide the key to saving humanity. But it is also possible that if we allow our First Amendment freedoms to be eroded many great ideas, and maybe even that one idea that saves humanity, may never see the light of day.
I sincerely believe that as we move into a mechanized, computerized and robotized future, never before has there been a greater need for us to steadfastly preserve and protect, and even expand, our freedom of expression and all the other rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Simply put, our country, our culture, and perhaps even our survival, may depend on it.
This article is not intended to be, nor should it be considered to be, legal advice.
Gregory A. Piccionelli is an entertainment and Internet attorney and free speech advocate. He can be reached at (818) 201-3955 or firstname.lastname@example.org.