Defending the First Amendment

"What are the five freedoms of the First Amendment?" asked Robert Richards. "How many of you can name all five?" One lone hand was raised among the crowd of attendees at last week's Research Unplugged event. "Who can name four?" Richards continued. "Three?"

According to Richards, we're not alone in our ignorance. "Only one percent of Americans can name all five freedoms," Richards said, citing a recent national survey. As professor of journalism and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment, Richards researches issues of free expression in the United States.

professor with glasses hold hands together
Emily Wiley

Robert Richards defends the First Amendment.

"Seventy-five percent of American high school students either aren't aware of their rights under the First Amendment, or take them for granted," Richards said. "More than one-third believes newspaper articles should be approved by the government before going to print." This is a frightening figure, Richards noted, as some members of the audience gasped in disbelief.

Richards believes that a great assault on speech freedoms in American schools began with the Columbine school shooting of 1999. He pointed to the case of a New Jersey kindergarten student who was suspended for "simulating a weapon" while playing cops and robbers with friends. In Texas, a seventh grader was jailed for five days after writing a graphic Halloween tale as a school assignment, despite earning a perfect score for the story. Schools are operating with too much caution, noted Richards, for fear of being blamed for violent outbursts by students.

In a related area, some legislators are attempting to restrict children's access to video games with violent content, believing that such a ban will curb school shootings. However, Richards remarked, video games are a form of expression with protections under the First Amendment, and there is no evidence linking violent video games to violent actions. There are other more worrisome influences, he added. "For instance, in Pennsylvania, kids can get a junior hunting license at age 12—but keep that video game controller out of their hands!"

Richards also defends the First Amendment rights of the adult entertainment industry, whose revenue trumps the combined earnings of the NFL, MLB, and NBA. "More people watch pornography than you would believe," he told listeners. "While violent video games and pornography films are not popular with all Americans, should they be censored?" Richards asked. The marketplace of ideas would be destroyed if we censor every controversial element in our culture, he explained.

Today, video games, movies, and music have rating systems—an act of self-regulation on the part of each industry to avoid government involvement. Package labels say things like "This product not suited for children under 18." However, some legislators want to transform these voluntary warnings into law, making the same products illegal to sell to minors.

Richards believes individuals need to take responsibility rather than blame easy targets, such as the media. "Parents should be aware of what their children are doing," he said. "Don't make it a speech issue."

Robert Richards is professor of journalism in the College of Communications. He is also co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment. He can be reached at rdr2@psu.edu.

Last Updated March 30, 2005