On November 27, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation designating December 15 as Bill of Rights Day. December 15, 1941, marked the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. To celebrate this historic event, Roosevelt called “upon the officials of the Government, and upon the people of the United States, to observe the day by displaying the flag of the United States on public buildings and by meeting together for such prayers and such ceremonies as may seem to them appropriate.”
As Americans commemorated freedom, a titanic struggle against tyranny was also taking place. Nazi Germany and Japan were engaged in a brutal war of conquest and repression. In his proclamation, Roosevelt presciently stated, “It is especially fitting that this anniversary should be remembered and observed by those institutions of a democratic people which owe their very existence to the guarantees of the Bill of Rights: the free schools, the free churches, the labor unions, the religious and educational and civic organizations of all kinds which, without the guarantee of the Bill of Rights, could never have existed; which sicken and disappear whenever, in any country, these rights are curtailed or withdrawn.”
Less than two weeks after Roosevelt’s proclamation, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. Immediately, a surge of young men and women volunteered to serve their country. These patriots recognized that the fate of the free world hung perilously in the balance. Willing to sacrifice life and limb, 16 million men served in World War II. Four hundred thousand lost their lives preserving the freedoms Roosevelt had cited just weeks before the onset of war. Had these young Americans not been willing to put their lives on the line, the world would be a much darker place.
This December 15 marks the 226th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights. Despite the ongoing menace of terrorism and rogue regimes in North Korea and Iran, the United States does not currently face an imminent threat such as it did in 1941. Yet 76 years after his proclamation, President Roosevelt’s sage words ring more true than ever.
Unlike in 1941, the United States currently faces a more pervasive threat to the institutions of freedom. An internal threat to liberty now exists because far too many Americans have an appalling ignorance of and contempt for the Constitution and Bill of Rights. In a recent survey, thirty-three percent of Americans could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment. In 2014, only 23 percent of U.S. eighth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level in civics education courses, according to The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The statistics are even worse for U.S. history: an abysmally low 18 percent of eighth-graders performed at or above the Proficient level.
The situation is even bleaker on college campuses. In a recent poll by the Brookings Institution, 51 percent of all U.S. college students reported they believe shouting is an acceptable response to free speech, and 19 percent said they believe violence is an acceptable response to expressions of ideas they don’t like. Academic institutions, supposedly bastions of free speech and intellectual debate, have become ground zero in anti-free speech sentiment.
Violent protests erupted at UC-Berkeley last February in response to announcement of plans for a public appearance by conservative speaker Milo Yiannopoulos. The outcome of this destructive display was $150,000 in property damage and the cancellation of the speech.
Shouting down of speakers and the threat of protests have created a chilling effect on freedom of speech on college campuses. The stifling of free speech by students and administrators creates an ideological echo chamber and prevents a rigorous exchange of ideas. This is a frightening development, considering these students represent future teachers, judges, policymakers, attorneys, and other social leaders.
Toward the end of his proclamation, Roosevelt issued a prophetic warning: “Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men have died to win them. They come in time to take these rights for granted and to assume their protection is assured.” As Roosevelt predicted, many young Americans today do indeed take their rights for granted. They have no idea of the sacrifices that previous generations have undertaken to ensure a free and prosperous America. Worse yet, they believe it is acceptable to deny First Amendment rights to their fellow citizens simply because they disagree with them ideologically.
Roosevelt envisioned December 15 as a “day of mobilization for freedom and for human rights, a day of remembrance of the democratic and peaceful action by which these rights were gained, a day of reassessment of their present meaning and their living worth.” This is in stark contrast to the anti-free-speech activities that have become commonplace on college campuses.
President Roosevelt concluded his proclamation with a simple call to action: “to commemorate the adoption of the Bill of Rights and rededicate its principles and its practice.” In order for the United States to remain the world’s beacon of hope and freedom, the people of this nation must understand and embrace the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. A concerted effort to increase achievement in civics and U.S. history courses should be implemented immediately. Students who participate in actions to suppress speech should be punished accordingly. College campuses should dismiss safe spaces and increase students’ exposure to a variety of political and social views.
Two-hundred and twenty-six years after ratification, the Bill of Rights has certainly withstood the test of time. Let us hope that the personal freedoms and limits on government power acknowledged in the Bill of Rights will endure for the present and future generations.
Chris Talgo (CTalgo@heartland.org) works at The Heartland Institute and is a former U.S. history teacher.