“No Brainer” Trump…

Several media outlets have reported on Trump’s enthusiastic embrace of a measure to outlaw flag burning. Congresscritters repeatedly introduce these bills, despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled years ago that flag burning is protected under the First Amendment.

Ed Brayton commented on Trump’s history with the issue.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump said that anyone who burns an American flag — you know, all four of them in the entire country over the last few decades– should be stripped of their citizenship and be put in jail. Now two Republicans have proposed yet another bill to make flag burning illegal and he’s endorsing it on — where else — Twitter:

All in for Senator Steve Daines as he proposes an Amendment for a strong BAN on burning our American Flag. A no brainer!

Coincidentally, No Brainer is the Secret Service’s code name for him.

You would think that an administration’s Press Secretary would try to intercede to protect freedom of expression, since all media–even rightwing outlets–rely on First Amendment protections to do their jobs. But of course, this is the Trump Administration, which has hired spectacularly dishonest specimens to fill that post. (My favorite description of departing Sarah Huckabee Sanders was penned by Bret Stephens of the New York Times, who wrote that Sanders “combined the sincerity of Elmer Gantry with the moral outlook of Raskolnikov.”)

Since no one currently serving in this administration seems to “get it,” let me see if I can explain the way free speech jurisprudence works in language that thinking people  (a category that rather clearly excludes the current occupant of the White House) can understand.

The Free Speech clause of the First Amendment protects the exchange of ideas against government censorship. All ideas. Even awful ideas. Ideas that piss people off. Government doesn’t get to decide which ideas get transmitted, period. (Your mother, on the other hand, can censor you. So can your boss. The Bill of Rights only restrains government.)

Government can prohibit actions for a whole host of reasons, but it cannot pick and choose among messages. If there is an ordinance banning outdoor burning in dry weather, for example, or laws criminalizing the theft of a flag belonging to someone else, people violating those laws can be punished, because those measures don’t implicate an exchange of ideas. They are what lawyers call “content neutral.”

The rules are different for actions we call “symbolic speech.” These are actions that are clearly intended to communicate ideas. A silent march by Neo-Nazis–or any group of activists– doesn’t require verbal expression to send its message. We get it.

Flag burning offends us precisely because it sends an unmistakable message of disrespect for the country.

Brayton illuminated another common misunderstanding of what the First Amendment  does and does not protect, in a post about a Tennessee police officer who had advocated killing gay people.

Grayson Fritts, the Tennessee sheriff’s deputy/pastor who gave a sermon calling for LGBT people to be put to death, has been given a buyout and allowed to resign rather than be fired. And his boss says that’s because firing him would violate his First Amendment rights. I’m virtually a free speech absolutist, and I can say without hesitation that he is totally wrong….

If he was just a preacher who said that, I’d excoriate him for it but still support his constitutional right to say it. But as a government employee whose job is to administer justice fairly and equally, it’s a clear violation of his oath of office to think that some of the people he is charged with protecting and serving should be murdered by the state because he doesn’t approve of them. There is no free speech issue there.

A zoning administrator handing out religious tracts on the job is violating the terms of her employment, and a President trying to stifle views with which he disagrees is violating the terms of his. Free speech jurisprudence doesn’t protect them.

When elected officials–from the President on down–are abysmally ignorant of the constitution they swear to uphold, we’re in a world of hurt.


Houston, We Have a Problem…

In my periodic rants about the state of civic knowledge, I’ve frequently cited the results of a test periodically administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) as evidence of the American public’s worrisome deficit of civic literacy.

As troubling as that deficit of public knowledge is–as much as it contributes to political polarization and our inability to hold government actors accountable to constitutional standards– another outcome of ISI’s research should really terrify us.

Elected officials’ scores were lower than those of the general public in almost every category.

Of the 2,508 People surveyed, 164 say they have held an elected government office at least once in their life. Their average score on the civic literacy test is 44%, compared to 49% for those who have not held an elected office. Officeholders are less likely than other respondents to correctly answer 29 of the 33 test questions. This table shows the “knowledge gap” for each question: the difference between the percentage of common citizens who answered correctly and the percentage of officeholders who answered correctly.

Think about that for a minute.

Manufacturers don’t hire workers who don’t know how to make the product. Athletes who don’t understand the rules of their sport are soon gone. A lawyer who doesn’t know the rules of procedure and the precedents governing his practice area is likely to get sued for malpractice. Surely we have a right to expect our public officials to have a basic acquaintance with, and understanding of, the Constitution they swear to uphold.

I suppose ISI’s findings shouldn’t come as a shock; those of us who are watching the political spectacle that is the run-up to the 2016 Presidential election have seen plentiful evidence that–even among the people who presume to run for the highest office in the land–a number appear to be woefully ignorant of America’s history, philosophy and constitutional principles.

Perhaps we should test candidates for political office for basic constitutional competence before we allow them to run.


What We Don’t Know DOES Hurt Us…

The other day, I was grading a research paper produced by  a graduate student who shares my concerns over civic literacy. The paper included a comprehensive review of available research on the topic, much of which confirmed what we had already known about the American public’s appalling deficit in basic knowledge of our government and history.

But one finding floored me.

“In 2008, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Civic Literacy Program released the results of a study that tested the civic literacy of the general public, college graduates and elected officials. More than 2500 randomly selected people took ISI’s basic 33-question civic literacy exam, and more than 1700 failed, with an average score of 49 percent, and 30 percent of elected officials unable to identify the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as inalienable rights referred to in the Declaration of Independence…only 32 percent of elected officials could accurately define the free enterprise system; only 46 percent knew that Congress has the power to declare war; and only 49 percent could identify all three branches of government. Perhaps most disheartening is that civic literacy ws one of only two variables that had a negative effect on whether someone ran for public office. In other words, the more you know about American government, history and economics, the less likely you are to pursue and win elective office.” 

That explains a lot. It also raises an important question: What is the minimum content of an adequate “civics” education? What do all of us need to know in order to participate in self-governance?

In 1988, E.D. Hirsch stirred up a storm of controversy by arguing that, absent a minimal cultural literacy, students didn’t understand what they read. His basic point was that a common understanding of cultural/historical references is necessary for people to communicate. Most critics accepted that premise; where Hirsch got into trouble was by listing what he considered the necessary knowledge.

Recognizing that I’m stepping into those same choppy waters, let me just suggest some essential elements of civic literacy–beginning with an acknowledgement that neither the general public nor elected officials need to be scholars or (worse still) “intellectuals.” We are talking about very basic information necessary to conduct a rational discussion about our shared public institutions.

1) Every student who graduates from high school should know basic American history. I don’t care if they know the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, but they should know who the Pilgrims and Puritans were, why we fought the American Revolution, what the Enlightenment was and how it changed our definition of liberty and informed our approach to self-government and individual rights.

2) Every voter should know the basics of American government: what is meant by checks and balances and separation of powers, and the identities and duties of each of the three branches of government. Citizens should be able to recognize and define the rights protected by the Bill of Rights. (When only 51% of Americans agree that newspapers should be allowed to publish without prior government approval, we are clearly failing to provide that education.)

3) Voters don’t need to know the definition of a neutron, or how to spot a fossil, but they should know what science and the scientific method are. And they should know the difference between the scientific term “theory” and our casual use of that term.

4) Our endless debates over taxation and economic policy would benefit enormously if every student who graduated from high school could define  capitalism, socialism, fascism and mixed economy; if they knew the difference between the national debt and the deficit; and the difference between marginal and effective tax rates. (I’m always astonished by the number of people who think that being in the 50% bracket means you pay 50% of your income in taxes.)

Education reform is a hot topic right now. Basic civic knowledge needs to be at the top of that reform agenda.