Freedom: From dream to reality, facing a tough path

September 24, 2015

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment

Freedom.

Stop for a moment and savor that word — and what it means.

Roll that word over in your head. Say it aloud. Whisper it to yourself, shout it from the rooftops. And then think about how free you are right now.

Freedom certainly is the stuff of life for a democracy. For each of us living in the United States, it means freedom "from" — from fear, from harassment, imprisonment or worse, simply for holding unpopular views. Of course, it also means freedom "to" — to express ourselves, to disagree with others or to proclaim opinions not held by the majority.

The First Amendment sets out and protects five core freedoms for Americans: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. But for much of the world, freedom has another definition: "dream."

In Freedom House"s 2015 report on "Freedom in the World," the human rights group reported an overall drop in freedom for the ninth consecutive year.

The report said that "nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains — 61 to 33" over 2014. And, it said, "The number of countries with improvements hit its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began. Russia's invasion of Ukraine, a rollback of democratic gains by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's intensified campaign against press freedom and civil society, and further centralization of authority in China were evidence of a growing disdain for democratic standards that was found in nearly all regions of the world."

The double-barreled dose of international visits to Washington, D.C., and the White House, and thus to our national TV screens — by Pope Francis and by Chinese President Xi Jinping — puts a unique focus on freedom around the world.

While the pontiff generally was well received — by President Obama, a joint session of Congress and by throngs of the faithful who lined streets and swamped ticketed events — Francis also could have heard discordant voices, free to send messages in much harsher terms than likely to be heard in the White House or in the Capitol.

Speaking freely from street corners or via tweets were Native Americans opposed to the elevation to sainthood of a priest whose ministry to native tribes in California they associate more with Spanish conquest and cultural extinction; and groups on all sides of issues from abortion to the church's treatment of women to its response to child-molestation claims against priests and cover-ups by bishops.

For President Xi, the White House hosted a state dinner on Friday evening, an honor deeply intertwined with geopolitical concerns ranging from the economy to national debt to potential military confrontations.

But just down the street on Friday morning, some in Congress hosted a "stateless breakfast" for groups to gather in opposition to China's restrictive policies on Web content and the free flow of information through the press, and to increased attacks on those seeking to practice their religious faiths. At the Newseum, where I work, the front of the building facing Pennsylvania Avenue — the nation's "Main Street" — carried six banners seeking press freedom, release of dissidents and more respect for human rights; and the Newseum Institute sponsored a series of programs dubbed "Freedom Week."

To be sure — and some critics of the criticism of Xi's visit already are voicing this — the U.S. record on extending our core freedoms to all of its citizens is far from perfect. From segregation laws against African Americans to bigoted immigration laws and employment and housing policies that served to exclude Asian Americans, such shameful conduct and woeful legislation are part of the nation's history.

But First Amendment freedoms in this nation have served to provide a means to gather together to peaceably petition the government for change, to touch the conscience of a nation through faith, free speech and a free press, and to inform, encourage and inspire those working to correct wrongs.

As far as definitions go, that's also a pretty good one for "freedom." Use it. Proclaim it. And defend it.

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 gpolicinski@newseum.org. Follow him on Twitter: @genefac.

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