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Rights at Risk

Are Americans in the process of abandoning their rights?

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Many others have weighed in on the civil liberties debate as it pertains to questions for law, for institutions and for the very idea of America. What Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize winner, contributes is a narrative of the everyday experiences of individuals whose rights have been curtailed. His catalog of abuses is exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, but it is the comprehensiveness of his examples that reveals how rights are eroded over time.

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To Americans who have trouble imagining themselves in a situation where their rights might be violated – and have trouble sympathizing with victims, often minorities, whose rights have been trampled – Shipler reminds us that “Since constitutional rights apply to everyone, so do their violations.”

He argues that not only is dissent being thwarted by authorities, but that American students are not being taught to value civil liberties. The Bill of Rights is “in our culture but not our genetic code,” and it must be taught and exercised until it becomes habit. Furthermore, he says, it’s often schools that deny the very rights they should be teaching. In many schools, he writes, “Conformity is valued over protest, harmony over discord, even apathy over activism.” 

School and state university officials must walk the line between the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law. And though students have had some success when they object to censorship, they often don’t know, or don’t care, about First Amendment freedoms. Shipler cites a survey of more than 100,000 high school students in which 83 percent said that “people should be allowed to express unpopular opinions” but only 51 percent agreed that “newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.”

It stands to reason that knowing what your rights are is a precursor to resisting their violation. So a call for teaching them in schools seems a good step toward understanding the rights, and responsibilities, of being a free citizen. And there’s no time to waste. As Shipler concludes, “We had better begin now, for rights that are not invoked are eventually abandoned.”

Amy Rowland is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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