The First Amendment Receives a C+ in Fall Report Card

Awarding a grade to a concept like freedom might seem like an impossible task, but once again, our panel of 15 First Amendment experts gave it their best shot. This quarter, the composite grade point average for the five freedoms of the First Amendment dropped to 2.25 — still a C+, but a more precarious one.

Our panelists based their grades on their analysis of the events that have occurred since our last report card was released, in July of this year.

The main events on our panelists’ minds this quarter? Football players kneeling during the national anthem in an act of silent protest (and President Trump lashing out at them for it on Twitter); the third incarnation of the Trump administration’s travel ban; protests against conservative commentator Ben Shapiro at the University of California, Berkeley; the release of a study from the Brookings Institute indicating that the majority of college students neither support nor understand the First Amendment; the revelation that Russian operatives used social media to spread fake news and amplify political divides during the 2016 presidential campaign; and the white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va., where violent protests left one woman dead.

In this evaluation by a team of First Amendment experts, the grade point averages for speech and assembly dropped significantly; press and petition improved slightly; and religion’s grade point average remained about the same.

Freedom of speech lost many points this quarter because of hostile attitudes toward free expression from two groups that may not share anything else in common — college students and the Trump administration.

As for freedom of assembly, the events of Charlottesville loomed large in that area. Many of our panelists noted that the violence that occurred there has led to an erosion of public support for freedom of assembly, and to state and local governments taking actions to restrict this right. Unsurprisingly, assembly tumbled from a B- to a C this quarter. This quarter it has the lowest grade point average of all of the freedoms of expression, taking the spot previously held by freedom of the press.

The press rating may surprise those who see the ongoing attacks by President Trump against the news media — in particular, his tweets suggesting a review of NBC’s “government operating license.” But that threat is hollow, since television networks are not licensed by the government. Trump’s bluster has yet to be backed up by legal action.

But why the slight rise in the grade? This was not necessarily because our panelists believed that the threats to the press had been eliminated, but rather because (1) the press has shown itself to be resilient in the face of threats, and (2) our panelists have grown accustomed to things that, in previous quarters, seemed more alarming to them.

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