Related: Civil & Human Rights, Political Issues, Politics, Religion, Social Issues, Social Justice Issues

Voices of Trinity: Constitution Day 2018 – First Amendment Discussion

 
 

We asked, you answered!  The 2018 Constitution Day Straw Poll is fascinating and an up-to-the-minute reflection of what the Trinity community thinks about some critical issues about our country. I will provide the results in several blogs this week.  This first blog is devoted to your answers on the First Amendment questions (Freedom of Press, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Separation of Church and State).

Congress mandates that all educational institutions observe Constitution Day each year on September 17, the day the Founders met at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to sign the document that created the United States of America.  It would take two years for the states to ratify the Constitution, becoming official in 1789.  While 230 years sounds like a long time ago, today’s citizens know that debates about the Constitution and Bill of Rights rage even now, and the future of our country depends on well-educated people knowing what the Constitution says and having well-formed opinions about the rights, privileges, obligations and imperatives contained in this document.  The Constitution is not a long document, and you can read it online through many sources.  Legal cases interpreting the Constitution fill entire libraries, and that body of law has made our country strong, independent and an exemplar of the durability of the constitutional form of government.

Question #1 on the Bill of Rights:  First Amendment Issues

On to the Poll!  In the first question, we asked students, faculty and staff to rate certain rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights as “Very Important” or “Moderately Important” or “Not Important” or “Needs to Change.”   The question had this introduction:  “Individual Rights: The United States Constitution includes a Bill of Rights that protects many important rights of citizens. But some people think the rights go too far, or that it’s time to update the Bill of Rights for the modern age. What do you think? Indicate your opinion on these rights that are guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (this is a selection, not all are listed)” — below the answers to the various parts of the question are set out separately with comments relevant to the specific rights listed.  Note that “Professional Students” includes students in SPS, BGS, EDU and NHP:

#1:  What do you think of the Bill of Rights — Freedom of the Press

Very Important
Moderately Important
Not Important
Needs to Change
ALL ANSWERS 88% 10% 1% 1%
CAS STUDENTS 88% 12% 0 0
PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS
74% 17% 4% 1%
FACULTY/STAFF 97% 3% 0 0

Interesting that professional students are somewhat more critical of Freedom of the Press while faculty/staff are the most supportive.

  • A Professional Student commented: “I believe in the power of the press. Media is a VERY powerful tool in today’s society and its influence on our lives, daily decisions, and major decisions is becoming more pronounced as technology progresses. I believe that, in some cases, the media is being used to manipulate the public viewpoint for political or monetary gains. I am not saying the media should be regulated. But I believe that unethical reporting and the falsification or purposeful misleading of the public via the media should be considered a serious offense. I am not saying they lie. I am saying that some individuals may misrepresent facts and only give the part of the story that they want the people to see.”

#1:  What do you think of the Bill of Rights — Freedom of Speech

Very Important
Moderately Important
Not Important
Needs to Change
ALL ANSWERS 93% 4% 0 3%
CAS STUDENTS 94% 6% 0 0
PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS
96% 4% 0 0
FACULTY/STAFF 91% 3% 0 6%

While the vast majority in all categories believe that Freedom of Speech is very important, there are some who urge limitations, such as this comment:

  • A member of the Faculty/Staff commented:  “Freedom of Speech, while quite important in a democracy, has expanded too far. It needs to be balanced with respect for our country with certain acts declared illegal, including flag burning (is this really speech?), inflammatory speech, hateful speech (e.g., racial epithets, other comments demeaning various groups), and the like.”

#1:  What do you think of the Bill of Rights — Separation of Church and State

Very Important
Moderately Important
Not Important
Needs to Change
ALL ANSWERS 77% 12% 5% 4%
CAS STUDENTS 82% 6% 12% 0
PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS
74% 4% 9% 13%
FACULTY/STAFF 76% 21% 0 3%

Very interesting mixed results across all categories.  People have conflicting thoughts about the Separation of Church and State, perhaps in part because the political environment often conflates them.

  • A Professional Student commented:  “The separation of church and state needs to be reviewed by the current Administration because there seems to be a gross misunderstanding the their part.”

#1:  What do you think of the Bill of Rights — Freedom of Religion

Very Important
Moderately Important
Not Important
Needs to Change
ALL ANSWERS 95% 5% 0 0
CAS STUDENTS 100% 0 0 0
PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS
87% 13% 0 0
FACULTY/STAFF 97% 3% 0 0

While the results were mixed on Separation of Church and State, there’s more unanimity about the importance of Freedom of Religion, though professional students seem the most skeptical:

  • A Professional Student commented:  “Freedom of Religion- I am not overly religious. I was
    raised Southern Baptist. However, I have come to see religion as more of a set of ethical
    guidelines. I honestly do not care if a person is religious or not. I do not believe that any religion is
    more right than the other. I do not believe that a person’s religious beliefs should be forced upon
    any individual, especially if it harms an individual.”

You had a lot to say about the Second Amendment Right to Bear Arms!  That summary will be in the next blog.  But continuing the First Amendment theme in this blog, let’s turn to the second question in the poll:

Question #2:  “Fake News” and Press as “Enemy of the People”

Question #2 reads: “Media and the President:  President Trump has called the press “fake news” and even the “enemy of the people.”  He suggests that there should be changes in laws (for example, tougher libel laws) to restrain what the media publishes.  Do you agree or disagree, and why? Is there a better solution?  Explain in a one-paragraph essay.”

Students in the College of Arts and Sciences wrote:

  • “I disagree! In a potentially corrupt society, some may find the freedom of the media to be their
    sole-discreet at times-outlet to shine light on issues usually overlooked. I recall a scenario where a
    young abused wife’s only outlet was to a local journalist. It was by default that the journalist
    pursued the abused victim and asked permission to publish an article about her accused-never
    legally pursued-husband. This avenue of communication shed even more light on the fact that
    local officers-who were great buddies with the abusive husband-never activated the appropriate
    legal procedures;after they were called to the home on several occasions. Media should not be
    stunted as it has the potential to save lives.”
  • “I do agree that there should be tougher libel laws, because a negative article of atrocious actions
    that are not true can damage or endanger an individual’s life and character I believe in a free
    press, but I believe that the press needs to be held accountable for certain stories. I do not like the
    term, “fake news,” or “enemy of the People,” but I do understand it to an extent. I personally
    believe that the media has the utmost responsibility to verify and substantiate their stories before
    publishing them. Instead of trying to defame an individual’s character, the media should primarily
    focus reporting the objective truth.”
  • “I disagree. Media is not the “enemy of the people”. Although there is a possibility of giving
    mistakenly some information, in no way the media should be labelled as “fake news”. “
  • “Disagree. While people may not like what is published, it is still the press’ right to inform the public.
    I do however believe that the US media in general has issues with biaism when compared to
    media abroad.”
  • “I do not agree with Trump about having tougher libel laws, only because the media is a major
    outlet to inform people of what is going on, though there should be something in place to assure
    how accurate certain topics and information are and how they are being portrayed. Media outlets
    should be stating facts, not assumptions.”
  • “I believe that Trump has only taken this into consideration because it affected him personally. I
    think that it is important to get different perspectives on topics and the media provides us with a
    variety of positions. Yes, there are flaws in the way news has been projected; such as, statistics.
    The change should be that there are accurate sources and evidence that supports the claims.”
  • “The media should be free to publish what it wants under constitutional law but we should also
    know who is funding the press.”
  • “I disagree entirely with this belief. The press was made as a 4th branch of government in order to
    keep our citizens informed of the government. Many presidents have had feuds with the press
    because in today’s societies the press doesn’t just inform us of what is happening, they inform and
    analyze giving their own opinion on current events. Trump doesn’t want the media to go away, he
    wants those who oppose him and question him and his ideas to be erased so that nobody
    criticizes his ideologies, something that only dictators do.”

Students in the Professional Schools wrote:

  • “I completely disagree. If we have in the Bill of Rights, Freedom of Press and Freedom of Speech,
    what gives him the right to take that away from us. Donald Trump only wants what is best for him.
    If the press does not portray him as a “Saint”, then they get called out for being “fake news and
    enemy of people.” Although I sometimes do not agree with what the media portrays certain things,
    there still should not be censorship placed on everything because it makes someone look bad.
    This is not Big Brother 1984, instead, do not feed into what the media has to say about the
    negativity and focus on the positives.”
  • “I do not think the media should have laws dictating what they can and cannot publish. I do think
    that there should be repercussions for purposely misrepresenting facts in order to drive the public
    to support a particular cause or end game. Something like a peer review journal. Scientific claims
    must be backed with facts and able to be accurately replicated. I think the media should have a
    similar standard. They should not be allowed to “blow up” and misrepresent statements without
    consequences. They are trusted. They should not be able to abuse that trust.”
  • “The news organizations are not the enemy of the people but they do exhibit clear bias towards
    each of their base, which comes off as fake news and deceiving stories meant to churn up public
    opinion,skew opinions, and draw viewers into their political agenda. This extends to outlets such
    as CNN and Fox News alike. They are all guilty. I believe that the news should be handled
    separate from bias and political agenda but that would take generations to solve given the way
    Americans already hold their beliefs towards their news sources in this country. Its unfortunately
    some of the downsides we have to endure while allowing freedom of speech (which is a good
    thing). Many times we use our freedom of speech irresponsibly and with political agenda
    regardless of the facts. I would challenge someone with bigger ideas than I, to create laws that
    hold these organizations accountable for biased reporting, without taking away from their first
    amendment rights.”
  • “I disagree that we should strengthen libel laws. The press is free to report and the president is free
    to provide a logical rebuttal. He has failed to do so repeatedly.”
  • “I disagree because his approach is that of a dictator and Trump is the leading the circus for “fake
    news”. Journalists are not the enemy because they fact check this administration as they have
    done previously.”
  • “I disagree. He wants to do this to obstruct justice and hide his crimes.”
  • “I agree on that there should be changes about the press speaking on information that is not true.
    This has been going on for decades and of course in my opinion if this continues to happen, the
    press or whomever is putting out this “fake news” should be fined a enormous amount.”
  • “I agree to a certain extent,however, the media should not be silenced.”

Faculty and Staff Comments:

  • “I disagree. Freedom of the speech and the press is vital, and essential to our democracy. The
    literal definition – governance OF the people. If the government places itself in the position to
    control the message, the power of the people and their voice is lost, and democracy would
    collapse.”
  • “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. Our founders
    were wise to include this sentence in the Bill of Rights, and to word it so carefully. The press and
    free speech are as important to protecting our freedom and liberty from tyranny — if not even
    more so — than the Second Amendment. The pen is, after all, mightier than the sword. It’s best to
    keep that sword in the hands of the people, and not have it taken from them by the government.”
  • “Press need freedom to investigate and report. Ethical standards need to be imposed by the
    respective media companies.”
  • “I strongly disagree. The president invented the term “fake news” to help cover up the truth of many
    things he is saying and doing, which can be fact-checked and proved to be lies. I believe he calls
    the press “the enemy of the people” because he is afraid of what may be printed about him. The
    people he serves deserve to know the truth, and he should address everyone with respect, without
    slurs or insults. In addition, he does not take responsibility for his actions that come under
    criticism; he constantly finds someone else to blame for whatever has happened. He doesn’t own
    up or “man up” to his mistakes. Until that happens, libel laws should stay as they are. Meanwhile,
    heavy doses of fact-checking need to continue and to be given more prominence in news reports.”
  • “The president is wrong. The press must remain unfettered so citizens can gain access to the
    workings of government. This leads to an informed citizenry capable of making the right decisions
    and voting with the most available information. The press should not be silenced.”
  • “Yes. the media confuses its citizenry and fails to provide a full picture of the news story.”
  • “Disagree. A free press is one of the main checks on runaway government power. The press’s role
    is, by nature, adversarial, and that’s probably why President Trump is so angry about media
    coverage. He has shown that he cannot stand to have his lies and failings pointed out. He has a
    compelling need to hit back at anyone who disagrees with him. The campaign against the press is
    just another example of the way he sees the world.”
  • “An independent press is the eyes and ears of the public, regularly digging into matters that affect
    society but that some would prefer be kept from public view. With all its faults (notably corporate
    ownership and control) this is what journalism and only journalism exists to do. An independent
    press is indispensable to democracy.”
  • “The media needs to report news to the best of their ability with the information they can obtain.
    News shows which may editorialize on the news in any way they want. The public needs to know
    the difference between fact and opinion. We need to have better media literacy in this country so
    we understand where the information is coming from and it’s validity . The president does not and
    should not in any way get to dictate or censure the media from fair reporting.”
  • “Strongly disagree with this crazy, unfit president who celebrates ignorance and constantly shows
    the world how little he knows of our history or the Constitution. He may be able to manipulate the
    Fox news or the Sinclair Broadcast group and put a liar in front of the White House press corps
    every day but fortunately the fourth estate will be his undoing! A free press is exposing his
    laundering of Russian money, his failure to pay taxes and yes his collusion with the Russians, his
    adultery and his mental deficiencies…can’t wait for it all to come out. Mueller for President in
    20/20!”
  • “I don’t just disagree with President Trump’s assessment that the mainstream media is fake and “an
    enemy” – I believe he is lying, manipulatively. He is an autocratic demagogue who borrows the
    language of authoritarianism to cover his own bad deeds. HE is the producer of fake news, HE is
    the “enemy of the people”. The mainstream media may well turn out to be the institution that saves
    our democracy. Just too bad they started real reporting late in the game!”
  • “Trump will cry “fake” and “enemy” at any information or person that does not favorably support
    himself or his view. Libel laws are necessary and important, but in the case of the current
    president, I think the real issue is what can be done to counter the incessant lies that issue from
    his mouth and from his administration. How can he be held accountable?”

What a great conversation!  Thanks to all who participated!

Next:  What Trinity students, faculty and staff think about the Second Amendment and other parts of the Bill of Rights….

Do you have an opinion on these issues?  Use the “Comment” link below to tell us what you think!

 

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu