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Civility: Let’s try that free speech option

  • Written by Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

The First Amendment protects our freedom to say and write just about anything we want — but that doesn’t mean we ought to, particularly in public life.

The difference rests between “can” and “should.”

Our nation’s founders were no strangers to rude, callous and raucous debate in public life and to vicious commentary, even by today’s “anything goes” online standards. Sex scandals, infidelity, personal weaknesses and even religious differences were exposed, debated and mocked in public life and in the newspapers of the day with personal glee and political purpose.

The self-governing system eventually created for the United States depends on vigorous public involvement and debate, but it also depends on a measure of what we call today “civility” to function. Not civility in the sense of polite nods and watered-down language — that’s not “free speech” in any sense — but rather a thinking response and respect for robust debate over ideas and policies.

The Bill of Rights, led off by the First Amendment, rests on the creative tension of rights and responsibilities. It is civility in its historical meaning — involved, engaged citizenry — that powers those two great civic engines.

A First Amendment advocate should be the last to call for laws or other official limits on speech, such as campus speech codes or restrictions on campaign speech. But Congressional gridlock, growing public disaffection with politics and growing concern about online discussions perpetually locked into the lowest level of comments, require a non-governmental response.

Journalists are a good starting point for self-initiated positive action. A recent gathering of about 40 practitioners, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., gives hope in that direction.

The group met in early December to talk about incivility in the media, in a multi-day session sponsored by the Newseum Institute, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. A concluding task was to set out some core values for journalists and to face the serious issue of whether this group or any other might actually produce change.

A good starting point for the organizers (Note: I was one of them) was to assemble a group that resembles the nation in 2014: Journalists from traditional media and new media, with great diversity in age groups, ethnicity, location and views.

The values statement stressed truth, independence and transparency as well as focusing on the free press role envisioned by Madison, Jefferson and others: Exposing wrongdoing, airing of multiple points of view, empowering people with information needed for self-governance, and providing the means for the nation to hear from “the disenfranchised and voices that are not being heard.”

Worthy goals all, for a nation that is without doubt increasingly diverse and increasingly divided — and also a good refocusing for a free press battered by falling and fading revenue sources, diminished public respect and the loss of many of its most-veteran participants.

In the mid-1940s, journalists and academics joined in a post-WWII seminar popularly known as the Hutchins Commission to consider the role of journalism in a cynical, war-weary world. According to reports of the time, it was an era in which the public had little respect for the large media enterprises of the day, finding them increasingly uncivil, unconcerned with or unable to perform their “watchdog on government” role — and out of touch with news consumers. Sound familiar?

There is no minimizing the difficulty ahead in reshaping public debate that now focuses on the shrill, in which partisan confrontation often overwhelms nonpartisan compromise. Perhaps journalists are the group of that can first move the idea of “civility” from premise to practice — a New Year resolution with real promise.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Inside the First Amendment - From a 5th-grader, uncomfortable truth about religious conflict

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

  When children speak the truth, adults often squirm and shut them up.

  That’s apparently what happened to Zachary Golob-Drake last week after he delivered a speech entitled “In the Name of Religion” to his 5th-grade class at Patel Partnership School in Tampa, Fla.
  The teacher initially applauded Zachary’s speech, awarding him first prize and an opportunity to compete to represent his school at the regional 4-H Tropicana Public Speech Contest.
  But later that same day, school officials had second thoughts.
  An assistant principal took Zachary aside and explained that the speech wasn’t appropriate for 4th- and 5th-graders. As Zachary told WFLA-TV, “She thought that probably I would have to rewrite my speech, take the religion out or not compete.”
  Stripped of his blue ribbon, Zachary was found crying when his older brother came to pick him up at school.
  After family members protested, the school returned the ribbon. But still-worried administrators postponed the school-wide contest until parents signed permission slips allowing their children to hear the speeches.
  What’s the scary, controversial, age-inappropriate content in Zachary’s speech that young children shouldn’t hear without parental consent?
  “The world’s major religions all have messages about coexisting,” he writes. But sometimes people “use religion as an excuse to take each other’s lives.” He cites the Crusades, Genghis Khan, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as examples.
  Despite news reports to the contrary, school officials now claim that the “topic of mass murders” and not religion is the issue.
  That’s strange, because Zachary’s short speech isn’t graphic or inflammatory. He merely states the obvious: “Religious differences have always sparked conflict, even leading to warfare and mass murder.”
  If Zachary’s school doesn’t teach young kids (or allow them to discuss) the truth about religious conflict in history, what exactly does it teach?
  I suspect that Zachary’s school, like many public schools, is afraid to touch “religion” with the proverbial ten-foot pole. Even when religion is mentioned in the upper elementary grades — holidays, places of worship, and other basic facts — there is rarely discussion of the role of religion in society, for better and for worse.
  It may be uncomfortable and politically incorrect, but Zachary is saying what 4th and 5th graders need to hear about one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.
  “In the name of religion,” Christians and Muslims are fighting in northern Africa; Sunni and Shiite Muslims are at war in the Middle East; Buddhists are attacking Muslims in Burma; extremists are perverting Islam to justify violence across the globe — and the tragic list goes on.
  As only a child can do, Zachary calls attention to the contradiction between the message of compassion found at the heart of the major world religions and the failure of many adherents to live that message in their relationships with people of other faiths.
  Fortunately, however, little Zachary is smart enough to recognize that there is more to the story — that religion can also be a force for great good in the world.
  Zachary ends his speech by telling us “religion provides moral guidance for most of the seven billion people on the earth.” He quotes the admonition of Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you,” an early version of the Golden Rule found in many of the world’s great faiths.
  “This world would be a better place,” writes Zachary, “if everybody followed that rule.”
  From the mouths of babes comes truth and wisdom.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: religiousfreedomeducation.org Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

New Year, fresh start - Resolved to build a better 2014

  • Written by Joan Hadac

 

 Editor’s note: the opinion piece below was written by correspondent Joan Hadac and is adapted from something she published online a year ago. It serves as a timeless reminder that New Year’s resolutions can and should be about more than losing weight or quitting smoking.

  Well, now that most of us have broken our New Year’s resolutions…

  OK, kidding. Sort of.
  It seems to me that most New Year’s resolutions involve personal behavior: lose weight, stop smoking, exercise regularly, etc.
  But fewer resolutions involve social behavior — that is, changing the way we act in our neighborhoods, city, state, nation and world. With that in mind, here are 10 social resolutions I suggest all of us think about.
  In 2014, resolve to:
  • Introduce yourself to six neighbors you currently do not know. By “six” I mean six households — not the mom, dad, two kids, dog and cat living next door. By “introduce” I mean face to face — not Facebook friending or anything similarly lacking in the human touch. And by “face to face” I mean something more than a smile, wave or head nod. Invite them over to dinner — or meet them at one of your local restaurants, who could certainly use the business.
  • Support your local newspaper. Buy a gift subscription for your neighbors. Patronize the paper’s advertisers and let them know you saw their ad. Community newspapers are an important part of the local social fabric, and they offer something important that the downtown papers can’t possibly give. A community that loses its local paper is a community in decline.
  • Live your faith. If you are a believer, support your local house of worship with more than lip service. Participate in services regularly and contribute your time, talents and treasure to give glory to God.
  • Send someone flowers or a fruit basket. Just once in 2014, send a gift to someone you have never sent a gift to before — preferably someone taken for granted by others. A crossing guard, a school or church secretary, someone like that.
  • If you are eligible to vote, register to vote and vote in every election. Ever wonder why some parts of the greater Chicago area seem to get more attention from elected officials than others? It’s because they produce votes, and in big numbers. Also, cast an informed ballot. Know the issues and the candidates.
  • Support your local police. They can’t be everywhere, and they need extra sets of eyes and ears to keep them informed. If you see something, say something. And get involved in your local neighborhood watch or whatever works best for you.
  • Consider adopting a dog or cat from a local shelter. In addition to saving the life of an animal that might otherwise be killed, a good house pet can actually improve your physical and spiritual well being.
  • Attend and support local public events. Check out your local civic association, historical society and chamber of commerce. And attend events that support our local boys and girls. Granted, it’s not always easy shoveling down Cub Scout pancakes, Boy Scout spaghetti, or potluck whatever — but these are the types of events, small as they are, that help build and strengthen the fabric of our communities.
  • Shop locally. The small businesses within a mile or two or your home pay local taxes, employ local men and women, and donate to local organizations like schools, churches, Little League, Scouting groups and more.
  • Finally, resolve to smile, laugh and spread cheer among people you meet — whether you’ve known them all your life or whether you met them five minutes ago.

 

Inside the First Amendment ‘Ho Ho’ or ‘Humbug’? — let’s celebrate and protect our basic rights

  • Written by Gene Policinski’

  Tis the season to be jolly and of good will, right?

  Responding to holiday cheer with a well-voiced “Bah” or “Humbug?”
  Well, it’s our right under the First Amendment to speak and write in ways that are naughty or nice. Let’s stick with that seasonal theme as we move from the Christmas season into resolutions and forecasts for the New Year, and consider the past year and what’s ahead.
  For both this year and next, the controversy over the National Security Agency and its electronic surveillance programs will be the “gift that keeps on giving.”
  With regular revelations of top-secret details, and a federal district court decision just days ago declaring some elements of the NSA programs unconstitutional, the top story of 2013 in the area of privacy, press and individual rights most likely will be the top story for at least the first six months of 2014.
  A presidential advisory board examining NSA policies recommended on Dec. 17 that the agency be blocked from storing massive amounts of data on Americans’ telephone records, and that court orders be required to conduct individual searches. But officials charged with preventing terror attacks said such restrictions will seriously slow efforts to prevent such attacks. And on Dec. 19, veteran national security writer Walter Pincus of The Washington Post wrote that “the vast majority” of 1.7 million classified documents that former NSA contractor Edward Snowden took with him in fleeing the U.S. have not yet been “leaked.”
  Free press advocates supporting a federal shield law — protecting journalists from being compelled in court to disclose sources — got an early present from President Obama. In June, he responded to a controversy over Justice Department seizures of press telephone records of The Associated Press, and phone and e-mail records of a Fox News correspondent by throwing administration support behind the bill. In 2010, following disclosure of U.S. secret cables and reports by the group Wikileaks, Obama opposed a similar bill.
  Still, the Grinch that is Congress pushed any chance of opening that gift to a free press into the New Year, as the Free Flow of Information Act languished in the Senate in December — though some forecast a floor vote on the bill as early as January.
  News photographers reporting on the President ended the year battling administration policies they say freeze out news media lenses in favor of the official White House camera. At a Dec. 17 meeting between top news media representatives and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, they agreed to continue talks in January about access for photo journalists to President Obama’s public events and appearances.
  Not much under the First Amendment holiday tree for Freedom of Information (FOI) advocates — who see little in the way of major changes in laws to encourage “transparency” in government, but also continued problems in getting open access to officials who can interpret or explain policies, or parse increasing amounts of raw data available on government Web sites.
  And then there’s an issue highlighted by — but not limited to — the NSA disclosures: The huge amount of data about us held by “third-parties” — private companies ranging from retailers to phone companies to internet providers. Not subject to FOI laws like government data bases, but vulnerable to government subpoenas or secret agreements with agencies, these information icebergs sail along like their real-world counterparts — with much of their bulk generally out of sight. Santa may reside in a toyshop at the North Pole, but deep details of our daily routines live in these private sanctorums-in-cyberspace.
  FoxNews.com reporter Jana Winter got the best gift of all — freedom — on Dec. 10 from the New York state Court of Appeals. It ruled she did not have to comply with a subpoena that would have forced her to choose in a Colorado court between going to jail and revealing confidential sources. The New York court said Winter was protected by that state’s “absolute” shield law — and not subject to Colorado’s significantly weaker law — from having to identify the sources of a story about a revealing notebook kept by accused Aurora, Colo., movie theater gunman James Holmes.
  As we head into 2014, ultimately the best gift we can present to ourselves is continued vigilance about our First Amendment rights. And with that thought, to all a good night.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Local View - Movies are still great for this kid

  • Written by Don C. White

Editor’s Note: Palos Hills historian Donald C. White took a break from his usual research of subjects such as the Civil War and the Gettysburg Address to take a trip down memory lane of the pleasures of going to the movies.

  Let’s all go to the movies.

  As a young lad growing up in Peoria, I lived and breathed reading, movies and radio.
  There were no televisions, no iPods or IPads, no Kindles or any high-tech devices that now give instant gratification to the user. We were blessed with a great school library, movies almost every Saturday or Sunday and sometimes both days. Then I had radio every afternoon and evening after school. What more could a boy want?
  On Saturdays, a couple of the second tier theatres would show two movies, a newsreel, a cartoon, previews of coming attractions and an ongoing serial that had me hanging on the edge of my seat each week. The cost for this pure childhood joy was only 9 cents.
  Do any of you remember those good old days? If I was fortunate enough to have money left over I could go to another movie on Sunday. The only thing missing was the serial.
  When I first started going to the movies with my buddies, we were all about 10 to 12 years old. We rode the bus downtown to Peoria and many times one or all of us would spend our return bus fare at the theatre, so we all walked home. Well, we were just growing boys and we really needed our junk food. Of course back then we didn’t know it was junk food; it just tasted good and went well with our day on the town.
  I think at the age of 12 the movie price was 25 cents but it was still a bargain. The truth be told, I think I stayed 11 years old for a while after my 12th birthday. I don’t remember all the prices for sure, but I know that candy bars were 5 cents, popcorn was 10 cents and I don’t remember the cost of a soda. Maybe I didn’t drink back then. Well, I still don’t yet today.
  They weren’t called the good old days for nothing. This would have been during the late 40s and early 50s. So it was after WWII and at the beginning of the Korean War. There were a lot of war movies and, of course, westerns to fill our minds. After the movie we would come home and play either cowboys or Indians or fight another war. Yes, I had a BB gun, just not as fancy as Ralphie’s in “A Christmas Story.” No, I never shot my eye out or any of my buddies either. And none of us ever stuck our tongue to a flag pole in the dead of winter.
  Fast forward to the early 1990s and the birth of my first grandchild and the joy that accompanies an event like that. Her name is Athena and she is my Georgia Peach. The fact that she lived in Georgia presented logistical problems for us going to the movies. We were able to visit her in Georgia and she came for visits to Illinois so we went to as many movies as we could.
  We then purchased the movie as soon as it came out on video and later DVDs.
  Now in 2013, Athena is in college and there is not much time for watching movies with her.
  I miss that, but don’t worry as I have two grandsons that live close by, so I still get to see many of the children’s movies when they hit the theatres. Grandsons Nikola and Samuel are very good about letting me know when the next movie is about to hit their local theatre.
  As I write this, I am remembering going to the movies with my Grandpa Charlie back in the 40s and 50s. We even saw a movie in 3-D way back then.
  Listed below are some of the movies I have seen during the past seventeen years or so.
  First, of course were the “Winnie the Pooh” videos, then came “Stuart Little”, “Bug’s Life,” “Home Alone,” then all of the old and many of the new Disney movies. Then came “Lion King,” “Harry Potter,” “Toy Story,” “Cars,” “The Bee Movie,” “Monsters University,” “Planes,” and “Ratatouille,” just to name a few. We also enjoyed many of the “Thomas” videos.
  Now as the boys get older we are getting more into the super hero movies and then who knows what comes next?
  Whatever is in store, I have enjoyed being able to go with the grandkids to see movies on the big screen that I would not have gotten to see without them. We always try to go in the early afternoon to get the best prices. The kids and senior prices are usually the same, in the $5.50 to $8 range. That is if you don’t see it in 3-D.
  So, for the wife and I, Nikola and Samuel, a day at the movies, with a treat could cost between $30 to $50. Then we might stop and have dinner after the movie. But you know what? It is always one of the best days of my life to hear the kids laugh and to share a memory maker with them. Life is great for this kid.
  I wish Joy and Peace to all of you during this Christmas season.