'Land of free' more than a lyric


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Posted Online: Dec. 07, 2012, 2:04 pm
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By Ken Paulson
The hardest line to sing in the "Star-Spangled Banner" is also the most important. "O'er the land of the free ..." with its character-building high note has been the bane of even professional singers.

That's probably appropriate. Becoming "the land of the free" wasn't all that easy either.

On Dec. 15, America will commemorate the 221st birthday of the Bill of Rights, the most extraordinary and influential guarantee of individual freedoms in world history.

Every school kid knows that this nation was founded on freedom, but sometimes we lose sight of the details. Building a nation from scratch, promising a democracy and ensuring certain inalienable rights were all both ambitious and unprecedented. And though we declared our liberty in 1776, it wasn't until the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 and the commitment to specific individual freedoms in the Bill of Rights in 1791 that we were truly on our way to a more perfect union.

Over time, the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, press, religion, petition and assembly helped abolish slavery, secure the vote for women and establish equal protection for all. Yet surveys show that only 4 percent of Americans can identify all of these core freedoms. A majority, when asked, can come up with only freedom of speech. That is particularly disappointing when you realize how rare these guarantees are globally.

In recent weeks:

-- In China, a tweeted joke about a popular horror-movie series and an upcoming Communist Party Congress led to an arrest on charges of supporting terrorism.
-- In India, the Information Technology Act criminalizes the posting of "any information that is grossly offensive or has menacing character." The restriction was applied last month to two women for a post and "Like" on Facebook.
-- A court in Egypt sentenced an American pastor and seven Egyptian Coptic Christians to death for their alleged ties to "The Innocence of Muslims," an anti-Islam film. The good news for the defendants: None is in Egypt.

Repression, censorship and attacks on minority faiths are commonplace worldwide. Even nations that regard themselves as free and open societies often fail to protect controversial ideas and viewpoints.

In the U.S., our guarantees are so vibrant and effective that we tend to take them for granted. Unfortunately, complacency isn't good for a democracy.

In an effort to build greater appreciation for First Amendment freedoms, a coalition of educators, journalists, artists and others have come together to form 1 for All, an educational campaign. The First Amendment Center, Knight Foundation, American Society of News Editors, McCormick Foundation and the Newseum have teamed up to help a new generation of citizens more fully appreciate these freedoms.

Part of that effort is a scholarship competition which began Dec. 1 and continues through Dec. 15, the First Amendment's birthday. tudents are encouraged to tweet about their favorite of the five freedoms, becoming eligible to compete for a $5,000 scholarship. Details can be found at 1forall.us.

The next time you hear the national anthem wind down to that final line, and before you restore your cap and pick up the beer cup, you might want to say a quiet thanks for the many who made "land of the free" more than a hard line to sing.

Whether fighting on our front lines or taking a stand for equality and justice, whether carrying a rifle on a foreign shore or a protest sign on Main Street, millions have made this land of freedom possible through their sacrifices and commitment.

Now that's something worth singing about.
Ken Paulson, former editor and senior vice president of USA Today, is president and CEO of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University.
















 



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  Today is Saturday, April 19, the 109th day of 2014. There are 256 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Miss McCorkindale has opened millinery rooms over Gimbel's dry goods store, where she offers a choice lot of millinery goods, which she will manufacture to order.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The little South Park Presbyterian chapel celebrated it first Easter decorated with flowers for an afternoon worship service attended by a large congregation.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Wennerberg Chorus of Augustana College has returned from a 2,000-mile tour in the Eastern states and Illinois.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Col. Charles Lindbergh has stated that he is convinced that Germany's air force is equal to the combined sky fleets of her potential European foes.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Small gas motors may be permitted on boats in the lake to be built in Loud Thunder Forest Preserve. The prospect was discussed yesterday at a meeting of the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The annual Dispatch/Rock Island Argus Spelling Bee continues to be a family tradition. Ed Lee, an eighth-grader at John Deere Junior High School, Moline, is the 1989 spelling bee champion from among 49 top spellers in Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties. He advances to the competition in Washington, D.C. Runnerup was Ed's sister, Susan.






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