We know more about the First Amendment — for the wrong reasons

Published 12:06 am Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Guest columnist

Americans know more about their First Amendment freedoms than in many years previously — but if we’re honest about it, it may well be because we’re now worried about keeping them.

Email newsletter signup

The 2019 State of the First Amendment survey, released today by the Freedom Forum Institute, shows the highest awareness of those basic rights than at any time in the 22-year history of the national sampling.

OK — we should always know a good deal about those core freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. The First Amendment defines those unique qualities of what it means to be an American. But in most years of the survey, we failed miserably on even naming them … often with more than one in three adults unable to even name a single one of those five, 226-year-old freedoms that begin the Bill of Rights.

This year:

  • 71 percent named at least one freedom, up from 60 percent in 2018;
  • The number of respondents who couldn’t name even one dropped to 21 percent from 40 percent last year;
  • More of us, across the board, could name specific freedoms than in years past. Comparing 2019 to 2018, speech rose to 64 percent from 56 percent; religion rose to 29 percent from 15 percent and press rose to 22 percent from 15 percent.

Why are those figures up? Calls for more education focused on the First Amendment have been sounded for years. More likely, it’s increasing controversies: Hate speech on the web or at public rallies. Bullying via social media or on the job. Protection for religious preferences that some see as a pretense for permitting bias and prejudice. Attacks on a free press, along with disappearing local news media outlets.

Even familiarity with First Amendment freedoms does not guarantee automatic support: 29 percent said those freedoms go too far, compared with 23 percent last year. Still, that’s well below the all-time high of 49 percent who said we have too much freedom, reported in the 2002 survey — about nine months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

Chief among the factors that seem to be driving that “too far” concern: 77 percent see misinformation on the web and the spread of “fake news” as serious threats to democracy.

We do seem to be parsing misinformation concerns apart from the institutions that comprise a free press: Despite repetitive, multi-year claims by some politicians — including, most visibly, President Trump — that news operations present “fake news” and are “enemies of the people,” the 2019 survey found about the same level of support for a free press as last year: 72 percent. The all-time low of 68 percent came in 2017, perhaps an echo of the previous year’s election rhetoric led by then-presidential candidate Trump.

Even when it comes to student press — an oft-neglected or excluded part of the free press — and student speech on social media, majorities favored uncensored posts and comments. Fifty-four percent of adults said student journalists should be free to report on controversial issues without the approval of school authorities; 64 percent said students should be able to express opinions on social media without being punished later by school officials.

Let’s not get too giddy about the increase in awareness, though it’s nice to see. Majorities do favor a free press and freedom of expression, but there still are sizeable numbers that would curtail or control those freedoms in some fashion.

Nevertheless, we can take comfort in this year’s survey findings that do seem to evidence the resiliency of our core freedoms and our attitudes toward them: When our freedoms are under attack, we — the beneficiaries of those freedoms — pay attention and push back.

Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. He can be reached at gpolicinski@freedomforum.org, or follow him on Twitter at @genefac.