We love First Amendment rights – whatever they are | Chroniclers
Americans place great importance on their First Amendment rights to freely worship and express their opinions, but we are deeply divided over how to apply and regulate these freedoms, a recently released survey found.
This is the challenge of the 21st century: to balance the freedoms long protected against shortcuts by the First Amendment in the name of combating the evils of society or protecting individual beliefs.
“The First Amendment: Where America Stands” is an inquiry commissioned by the non-partisan Freedom Forum. The survey sampled a representative group of more than 3,000 Americans about their attitudes and values regarding the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
For those who regard these five freedoms as essential to democracy, the survey results are welcome: 94% of those questioned consider the First Amendment vital and 63% would keep the 45 words of the amendment as adopted in 1791 .
But – no surprise in our polarized society – 23% of all respondents would make changes. A smaller group, 15% of those surveyed, said our fundamental freedoms go too far.
The results reflect a time when Americans are much more active in testing both the protections and the limits of our freedoms. We are engaged in legal battles over how religious freedom protects individual choices when those choices go against social movements. More of us have taken to the streets in recent years than in decades, but this resurgence has produced a conservative backlash in more than 40 state legislatures that threatens to chill the democratic principles of truth in power that those in power. Americans appreciate it.
For example, 36%% of us would add new limits on free speech to tackle ‘hate speech’ – raising the profound challenge that what some consider hate speech may be viewed by others. as simply the expression of a deeply held opinion or belief.
Some results may predict a decrease in support for the five freedoms: 45% of people say they haven’t expressed an opinion for fear of backlash, with younger Americans more likely to say they’ve censored themselves.
The survey found that 49% had never shared a political opinion on social media. Only three percent of them say the right to petition – to publicly demand changes in government policies or laws – is the First Amendment freedom they value most; 69% of us have never participated in a rally, demonstration or march.
In an echo of Freedom Forum polls since 1997, the new “Where America Stands” revealed that many of us lack a basic understanding of the First Amendment. About one in five (18%) could not name a single freedom in the amendment. Of those who could name at least one: 78% could identify freedom of expression, followed by 49% citing religion, 39% assembly, 34% the free press and 14% the right to petition. Only 9% correctly identified the five.
There were some freedoms that respondents mistakenly believed were in the First Amendment: 18% said it protected the right to “bear arms,” which is the Second Amendment. Others said the “right to vote” (17%). Voting is seen as the ultimate expression of the right to petition, but it is not explicitly mentioned in the amendment. Some named the right to due process (15%), which is established by the Fifth and 14th Amendments.
The values of disinformation, the press and social media in relation to practical solutions
Some findings are more like wishful thinking than practical suggestions, which doesn’t mean we should ignore feelings. The survey found that 72% would ban political ads that “distort the truth”.
In an age of constant battles against disinformation, especially online, this is certainly a laudable goal. But the sentiment raises a multitude of conflicting questions: What is “truth?” How to apply such laws without raising the specter of partisan censorship?
Then there is the public opinion about a free press. A majority – 58% – see the media as a key government watchdog, one of the main reasons the country’s founders provided such strong protection for independent journalism – even the highly partisan newspapers and magazines of their time. .
But only 14% of those polled expressed strong confidence in today’s news media, with public broadcasting ranked highest. The survey also confirmed a generalized poll over the past few years which shows that a majority of us live in so-called “information bubbles”: only 38% of those surveyed turn to media with different perspectives from theirs.
More than two-thirds of people who responded to the survey (69%) said social media companies should be responsible for what is posted on their sites. But that desire increases the likelihood that by holding Twitter, Facebook, and other accountable, we will induce much stricter restrictions from these companies on what we are able to post – with some predicting the death of social media such as as we know them – and the installation of government regulations and processes.
More than any other, this social media dilemma characterizes the survey results. New technologies and deep political and social divisions challenge our traditional shared notions of freedoms. We have a lively debate and momentous decisions ahead.
But the survey shows that far too many of us lack the basic First Amendment knowledge to debate and make informed decisions.
When it comes to our fundamental freedoms, “ignorance is no happiness”, especially when combined with fear and lack of commitment which can lead to hasty actions and political opportunists.
Ignorance of our rights is dangerous for democracy.
Find the full survey results on WhereAmericaStands.org.
Gene Policinski is a senior member of the Freedom Forum for the First Amendment. He can be contacted at [email protected]