The ink was barely dry on the U.S. Constitution when James Madison, the Virginia farmer whose arguments were critical to getting it ratified, drew up a list of changes. The new Congress adopted a version of his proposed amendments six months after the new government set up office, in 1789, and the 10 revisions now known as the Bill of Rights, aimed at preserving individual liberty against an emerging central government, were adopted by the states over the two years that followed.
Most millennials, those between the ages of 23 and 38, took in that much history in middle school or high school. Unfortunately, that generation and the one that follows appear less enthused about the specifics of what Madison drew up 230 years ago — or, at least, its relevance. A couple of relatively small news items last week bear that out.
The first came from a new organization, the Campaign for Free Speech, which describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit aiming to “reinvigorate the nation’s understanding of free speech and freedom of the press.” Its director, Robert Lystad, is a media, entertainment and insurance lawyer who has worked as a reporter in Washington, D.C. Last week his group announced the results of a poll in which 51% of the people surveyed — and 57% of millennials — agreed with this prompt: “The First Amendment, which includes the right of Americans to have free speech, was enacted more than 200 years ago. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? ‘The First Amendment goes too far in allowing hate speech in modern America and should be updated to reflect the cultural norms of today.’”
Nearly 57% of all respondents — and an event greater portion of millennials — favor fines or jail time for news outlets perceived as publishing “biased, inflammatory or false” content, although fewer favor asking a government agency to review media content. Nearly two-thirds of those surveyed suggested the speech of one or more groups — from neo-Nazis to radical Islamists to climate change deniers — should be restricted. More than 3 of 5 people agree there are places, on campus or in the realm of social media, where speech should be restricted.
Most of the results, save the part about a censorship bureau, are shocking. To call the First Amendment’s protection of speech and the press fundamental to our government is understatement. Yet, the survey shows those ideas are underappreciated among many born since the Reagan administration.
Those skeptical about the validity of that survey, which sampled 1,004 people, might consider the news from Cambridge last week. Back in September, the Harvard Crimson reported on a rally calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Its reporters reached out to the agency for comment; it had none.
But the mere attempt to add that perspective inspired more than 650 people and institutions to sign a Change.org petition condemning the Crimson for what it calls “tipping” off ICE to the presence of undocumented students at Harvard. The Crimson reported on their petition last week. To be sure, those putting their names to it did not call for government censorship of the student newspaper, but without a doubt they want its reporting limited.
Our experiment in self-government — framed by a Constitution later refined by Madison — has endured nearly two-and-a-half centuries. It has survived economic collapse, world war, Civil War, poor leadership, political controversy and the injustice and inhumanity of slavery. It has done so because the freedom to speak, gather in protest, collect names on a petition, practice one’s own religion, and publish news and information are protected, even when the ideas expressed are unpopular or extremist.
It’s possible the survey and events at Harvard reveal misperception, more than anything. Freedom of speech and the press are not absolute — laws protect against libel and defamation — even if nearly 4 of 5 people surveyed say freedom of speech is guaranteed without limit.
More importantly, a younger generation sees the First Amendment through the lens of a digital age. Speech in all forms proliferates in ways that Madison could never have imagined. The noxious comments of a single crank can whip up a Twitter fury in an instant. Besides, speech here is no longer just “ours,” it is exchanged with the wide world.
All of these are worth considering. But so is the value of the basic tenets of our Constitution — especially among those who will be asked to carry it into the future.