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Michael Geheren

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A Friendly Reminder to Defend the First Amendment

Posted: 08/15/2012 9:20 am

Name the five freedoms -- go! According to the 2012 State of the First Amendment report that was announced a few weeks ago at the National Press Club by The First Ammendment Center, only 13 percent of Americans knew that press and assembly were freedoms that were covered in the First Amendment.

I think that American teenagers and young adults forget about these five vital freedoms that this country has and that many countries don't. Being a journalist, freedom of the press means a lot to me personally.

Recently, I was picked as an Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholar to attend a conference funded by the Freedom Forum, an organization that built and runs the Newseum in Washington D.C. and operates the First Amendment Center and Diversity Institute.

The five-day conference focused on two things: journalism and our freedom to do it. Myself and 50 other students, one from each state and the District of Columbia, met current elite journalists like NBC's David Gregory, CBS's Bob Schieffer and Pulitzer Prize winner Sara Ganim, who broke the Penn State sex abuse story.

The other half was to reflect and explore the Newseum's many galleries that focus on freedom. The band Freedom Sings played a collection of music that was banned at one time or has stirred some major controversy. We also watched the announcement of the State of the First Amendment at the National Press Club.

It was a very moving experience. While I was in Washington, I did a lot of reflecting. There was one part of the Newseum that is just breathtaking. It is a walkway made of glass overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue with the five freedoms etched in glass.

If the United States of America didn't support freedom of the press, would our history be different? Would our 37th president have resigned? Would Barack Obama be our current president? The freedom of the press is the fourth check-and-balances system that America has in place. It makes sure that politicians aren't operating corruptly, like they do in my state of Illinois. According to a 2006 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, three governors of Illinois have gone to prison -- and that was before Gov. Rob Blagojevich was convicted and sent to jail earlier this spring.

Another major freedom that people use a lot is the freedom of speech. Take for instance, the Chick-fil-A controversy. What their CEO said regarding homosexuality does not necessarily reflect their company's views. Personally, I do not agree with his views about homosexuality, but I also don't agree with Mayor Rahm Emanual of Chicago and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston for saying that Chick-fil-A is not welcome in their city because of the remarks of the CEO. He has his first amendment rights as well. He has the right to say what he wants, even if some of America doesn't agree with it. He has the freedom of speech.

In 1776, when America was declared free of Great Britain, the Church of England was the devotion to the King and their religion surrounded by it. The Quakers and the Puritans escaped the religious persecutions they were facing back home. They came to America to break from the Church of England and develop freedom of religion. America doesn't restrict people from worshiping different religions. The shooting in Milwaukee at the Sikh temple shows that still today some Americans don't appreciate that freedom, and some have little tolerance for those outside of their religion.

A grassroots group called United Wisconsin exercised another first amendment right that many people forget about, the freedom of petition. On November 15, 2011, "recall drives" were launched, allowing people to come and sign a petition to recall the Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, after he introduced a controversial bill to the Wisconsin legislature, the Budget Repair Bill. The volunteers across the state collected more than one million signatures.

When we think about a speech -- a moment that changed American history -- many think about Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech in which he called for an end to discrimination. MLK exercised his rights of freedom of assembly as over 200,000 people watched while he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial overlooking the reflecting pool and said the words that would ripple through the Civil Rights Movement and throughout recent American history.

Those five freedoms didn't come easy for our ancestors who fought in the American Revolutionary War and are still defended by the United States military and by leaders who organize such campaigns and organizations like The Freedom Forum, The First Amendment Center and Newseum.

The Al Neuharth Free Spirit and Journalism Conference in Washington D.C. not only provided me with amazing information, and truly lifelong friends and mentors, but also an education I didn't get at school about the true values of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. The democracy of our country is operated on the principles of freedoms that our First Amendment brings. The freedoms of speech, religion, press, petition and assembly are five things Americans overlook as they see who came out with a new album or which celebrity tweeted this. When you have a second, stop and think about how different our country would be if Martin Luther King didn't stand up for the racial inequality in this country, if Richard Nixon didn't get caught up in the Watergate scandal, if Jerry Sandusky wasn't exposed as as a serial child molester.

Where would we be today without the First Amendment?

 
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