NEWSEUM FACEBOOK The U.S. received a barely passing grade for its treatment of First Amendment protections.
The U.S. received a barely passing grade for its treatment of First Amendment protections.

The United States earned a C+ overall grade in the Newseum Institute’s inaugural First Amendment Report Card, which analyzed the state of the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

The freedoms of assembly and petition received the highest grades, each earning a B-, while the freedoms of religion and speech each obtained a mark of C+. The panelists gave the freedom of the press the lowest grade: a C-.

Newseum Institute Chief Operating Officer Gene Policinski said these grades may be the results of a citizenry that has taken its First Amendment freedoms for granted, or that has defined these freedoms in narrow ways, according to a piece published on the Newseum’s “News and Commentary” section.

With respect to the freedom of the press, Policinski specifically cites surveys dating back to the 1990s that show growing public apprehension about whether the media continues to play a watchdog role.

Policinski also cites the resource dearth that many journalists and media employees now face.

Ken Paulson, the president of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, said the grades given in the First Amendment Report Card are likely related to the current administration’s expressed views on the media and press.

President Donald Trump recently announced he will not attend the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, making him the first sitting president in 36 years to miss the dinner. He has repeatedly attacked news organizations that report unfavorably about his administration, including CNN and The New York Times.

Most notably, Trump called the press the “enemy of the American people” in a Feb. 17 tweet, while Press Secretary Sean Spicer prevented journalists from The Times and other news organizations from attending an informal briefing on Feb. 24. White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon labelled the news media as “the opposition party” in a Jan. 25 interview with The New York Times.

“There are issues involving the president’s stance toward the news media that are of concern.  When you single out a free press as being ‘the enemy of the people,’ that’s going to have an unfortunate effect on both the news media and the public perception of the news media,” Paulson said in an interview with The Hoya.

Adjudicated by a panel of 15 First Amendment scholars, lawyers, journalists and activists, the rating, released April 20, reported a 2.39 average out of 5 after individually scoring the state of freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly and petition based on legislation, executive orders, judicial decisions and public opinion during the past year.


The Newseum Institute serves as a branch of Washington, D.C.’s Newseum, a museum dedicated to documenting the history of the First Amendment in the United States, and works to promote, explain and defend individual liberties.

Georgetown School of Continuing Studies journalism professor Alan Bjerga said it is difficult to judge these ratings, due to the fact that this is the inaugural First Amendment Report Card.

“It’s tough to tell because it’s a first-time rating. You don’t know what it’s relative to,” Bjerga said in an interview with The Hoya. “C, B, that’s very subjective. I would say that being a journalist is not getting any easier.”

Bjerga said reporters face unique challenges today, especially as so-called “fake news” and misinformation spread on the internet and on radio.

“Journalists face the challenge of an environment where inaccurate information can be propagated very widely, while accurate, at times less sensational information may struggle to be heard or distributed as widely. At the same time, I think there is a rising appreciation of the necessity and the value of quality journalism,” Bjerga said.

Bjerga said he was optimistic about the future for press freedoms, saying journalists are rising to the challenge and determined to thrive in response to the current political climate.

Lata Nott, the executive director of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, reviewed the results, pointing out that while few A’s were awarded, no failing grades were given.

Nott said Americans need to be more conscious and watchful of problems related to the First Amendment.

“There’s a sense that our freedoms need to be watched carefully, that they’re threatened. There’s concerns about what might happen in the future. But at the same time, there was also a sense that these freedoms are resilient. As Americans, we do think that they’re important,” Nott said in an interview with The Hoya.

Nott said some problems, like the continuing lack of laws for protecting journalists and privacy, will persist during Trump’s administration.

“People are probably more worried about the First Amendment than they were before because the Trump administration has taken some action that have been contrary to the First Amendment,” Nott said. “There’s no federal shield law for reporters. They can be compelled to give up their sources or be jailed, when it comes to federal matters.  The thing is, that’s always been the case.”

Nott emphasized the importance of tracking the quality of the First Amendment freedoms and the importance of dialogue regarding these freedoms.
Paulson said he continues to hope the United States moves toward being a more free state.

“As a nation, we really need to remember that our strength comes not just from the freedom to speak. It’s also about the willingness to listen. We’re not making the most of our core freedoms when we are so polarized that we can’t benefit from each other’s ideas,” Paulson said. “That has to change, and that more than anything else would improve the report card for the First Amendment.”

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