The First Amendment Can Take a Joke

by
Filed under: First Amendment Issues, Political Challenges

Rendering of the new Newseum building, Washington, D.C.

Margaret Engel is the managing editor of the Newseum, which will re-open Oct. 15, 2007 in new headquarters on the Mall in Washington, D.C.. She wrote this article specifically for the April 1, 2007 launch of ArtofthePrank.com. – JS


April 1 is a lighthearted celebration in America, but joking the other 364 days often gets civic pranksters in trouble.

It's not that anything goes on April Fool's Day, it just seems that the public gets the punchline that day, before quickly returning to a grim analysis of what is and what isn't acceptable.

Although the First Amendment is supposed to defend our freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly and the right to petition our government, the reality is that officialdom often can't take a joke.

Every week there are new examples of students wearing witty, biting, clever or just dumb t-shirts that draw the ire of school boards, superintendents and local courts. These student pranks are in the time-honored tradition of protest and dissent in our country, yet their apparel choices continue to end up in court cases that look to the First Amendment for help.

Parody and satire also are in need of protection from the First Amendment.

From National Lampoon ("Buy this Magazine or We Shoot This Dog") and The Onion to shock radio jockeys, the public appetite for shocking humor waxes and wanes with the political climate. Since 9/11, huge swaths of humor are taboo.

As the New York Times reported this week, to make sure that protestors using humor weren't allowed to demonstrate freely, the government secretly infiltrated protest groups like Billionaires for Bush before the Republican National Convention in New York in 2004.

Controlling or squelching dissent flies in the face of the First Amendment, but it is all too common. From anti-NAFTA groups to animal rights efforts, protestors in America now expect that police informers are in their midsts. National security is invoked repeatedly, with little explanation, for cancelling parade permits or severely limiting public demonstrations.

Journalists have long used pranks, not for dissent, but to attract readers and viewers.

From Mark Twain cooking up newspaper hoaxes to the BBC's staged "spaghetti tree" harvest, media outlets have been unable to resist having fun with gullible news consumers.

If this April Fool's Day is typical, dozens of newspapers, broadcast stations and web sites will be unable to prevent themselves from running fake stories. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have elevated fake news into an art form, but at least viewers know the score from their sign-ons. But other mediums, which run straightforward real news on all other days, don't see the hazard in misleading their public with a big departure on April 1. Usually, the angry letters to the editor make it clear that people do not like to be fooled.

But whether readers get the joke or not, the First Amendment is there to protect all speech and press, whether it's half-baked, wrong, upsetting, lame, unfair, scandalous or cruel.

That's why the new building that will house the Newseum, the museum of news, is engraving the 45 words of the First Amendment on a 90-foot tablet that faces Pennsylvania Avenue.

Just eleven blocks from the White House and five blocks from the U.S. Capitol, this 50-ton block of Tennessee marble will be very visible to the public and their members of Congress.

Maybe by seeing these constitutional protections spelled out, these Congressmen and women might think twice before they consider the amendment-gutting bills that are introduced every session, without fail.

For many, these words explain America's success and our rare position in the world.

These rights, drafted by James Madison to assure the adoption of the Constitution, have played a central role in expanding liberty and justice for every person in America.

The five freedoms are inextricably linked, but they all depend on a free press staying free. "Our liberty depends on freedom of the press," said Thomas Jefferson, "and that cannot be limited without being lost."

In a more modern version, Sigma Delta Chi, the journalism fraternity, used to run ads with the accurate saying, "If journalists don't tell you, who will?"

It's fitting that these words of the First Amendment are etched above Pennsylvania Avenue, America's Main Street of decades of dissent. From suffragettes, to the Bonus Army marchers, to the Ku Klux Klan, the marchers for civil rights, antiwar protestors, The Million Man March, and on and on, the footsteps of freedom have walked along this avenue. Whether you hate or support any group's message — or get the joke or don't – the freedom to speak, assemble, and protest plays out on America's streets, parks and statehouses. Protest is our inalienable right.

The First Amendment is what differentiates us from nearly every other country, especially the countries where jokes, pranks and dissent literally can get you killed.

From Bangladesh to China, from Algeria to Colombia, journalists are harassed, attacked, and tortured for the stories they publish and broadcast. They can be imprisoned for simply asking a question or reporting the truth. They don't dare joke around.

In far too many places, a free press is a hollow phrase, an invisible but potent enemy of warlord politics, official corruption and broken judicial systems.

That's why the Newseum has put this blueprint for freedom into stone — about a ton per word. It's no laughing matter.

In dangerous times — and aren't they all?— we need the sunshine of a free press and a citizenry that's free to crack wise every day of the year.

© 2007 Margaret Engel