The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

March 15, 2014

The right to not know our rights

Editor’s note: This column first was published March 12, 2006.

OK, let’s pretend this is one of those glitzy TV game shows.

I’ll pretend I’m the announcer, with great teeth and great hair (OK, first you have to pretend I even have hair), and you pretend you’re the contestant.

Here’s your big super duper bonus question for an amount equivalent to the gross national product of Liechtenstein, or $200, whichever is greater.

Which can you name more of, the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, or the five members of “The Simpsons”?

If you said “The Simpsons,” you don’t win the super duper bonus prize, but you are not alone.

A recent study conducted by the McCormick Tribune Freedom Foundation found less than one percent of 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed could name the five protected freedoms, while some 20 percent could rattle off the names of the animated Simpson clan.

For the record, the freedoms are religion, speech, the press, assembly and to petition the government, while the Simpsons are Bart, Homer, Marge, Lisa and Maggie.

Without the Simpsons, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the cartoon’s satirical humor. Without the First Amendment, you wouldn’t be able to read this column if the government decided it didn’t want you to, or to watch “The Simpsons,” for that matter.

This week is the second annual national Sunshine Week, which has nothing to do with the coming of spring. Sunshine Week was started last year by national journalism groups to focus on the importance of open government and the public’s right to know.

Like us or not, and Lord knows we are distinctly unlikable at times, we in the media are charged with being your eyes and ears when it comes to the workings of government.

If a governing body is doing something that will affect your life, such as deciding to raise your taxes or deciding to ignore that huge pothole in the street in front of your house, you have the right to know about it. For that, you can thank the First Amendment and sunshine laws such as Oklahoma’s Open Meeting and Open Records Act.

Press freedom, unfortunately, is far from universal. Journalists in Yemen reporting stories critical of the government have been beaten and imprisoned. In Chile, a radio reporter covering a student protest against the government was beaten and jailed by national police agents. Journalists covering parliamentary elections in Egypt have been assaulted and jailed.

In China, people writing Web logs, or blogs, are prohibited from using such controversial words as “freedom” and “democracy.” The Chinese government, it seems, finds these words offensive.

The First Amendment isn’t just about the press, of course. But neither is it about the right to own pets, for instance, nor the right to drive a car. Twenty-one percent of respondents to the McCormick poll said cats and dogs are protected by the First Amendment, while 17 percent thought the framers of the Constitution were prescient enough to predict the invention of the automobile.

Ours is the freest nation in the world. We are free to worship as we choose, to speak out against injustice, to criticize our government, to assemble peacefully.

And we are free to spend more mental energy watching “The Simpsons” than we do pondering how lucky we are to live in the United States.

Fortunately, the Constitution even protects our right to be ignorant.

Mullin is senior writer of the News & Eagle. Email him at jmullin@enidnews.com.

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