4 First Amendment ‘Where America Stands’ findings that surprised experts (and 3 that didn’t)


By Karen Hansen

The Freedom Forum’s newly released “The First Amendment: Where America Stands” survey gives a deep and detailed picture of Americans’ knowledge of and attitudes about the five freedoms the amendment protects. Their views are as diverse and divided as our country itself.

We asked a wide range of First Amendment advocates and experts what struck them most about our findings. Several trends emerged — so did a few surprises.

Surprising: People don’t know the First Amendment doesn’t protect you everywhere

The First Amendment can be confusing. While most people know it applies at all levels of government, most also expect it to protect freedoms in more aspects of society than it does. Only 26% of Americans know the First Amendment does not apply in private workplaces — nor does it protect free expression in many places we frequently interact.

“Several survey answers consistently showed that a large majority of Americans do not realize that the First Amendment offers no protection against censorship by powerful private sector entities, including social media companies … professional sports team owners … and employers,” says Nadine Strossen, professor at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Though many Americans mistakenly see the First Amendment protecting expression in ways it does not, attitudes about free speech also reflect contradictions and questions about just how far speech can go.

“Freedom Forum’s revealing survey, “The First Amendment: Where American Stands,” highlights the startling contradictions in Americans’ understanding of free speech issues. … One result from this fascinating collection of opinions is clear: The need for free speech education, from outstanding organizations like Freedom Forum and from all of us, is more necessary and important than ever.” — Ian Rosenberg, author, “The Fight for Free Speech” (N.Y.U. Press) and “Free Speech Handbook” (Macmillan)

Surprising: Attitudes about free speech reflect contradictions

Some experts, like Strossen, noted being pleasantly surprised at generally strong support for free speech — even controversial speech. Others noted cause for concern.

“It’s a little unsettling when a full 94% of respondents embrace the vitality and importance of the First Amendment, yet a third are willing to write off what is arguably the most essential of its liberties to prevent unpalatable words,” said Ken Paulson, director, Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University. “There’s a serious disconnect between ideals and practice there.”

Similarly, Karith Foster, speaker, comedian and diversity specialist, noted apparent contradictions between strong support for even controversial comedy (65% say it should be protected speech) and willingness to sacrifice free speech to get rid of hate speech (36% would support such a move). Support for free speech seems to stop at the margins of what respondents individually would find funny, offensive or agreeable.

“The obvious downside of this paradox is that comedians are having to choose between using their true voices or self-censoring,” says Foster, calling the findings “an incredibly accurate reflection of where we are right now as a society.”

“Presumably, people who take this position [that hate speech should be banned] think that no one would ever call their belief system ‘hate speech,’” says Bradley Smith, chairman of the Institute for Free Speech (IFS). “And yet, 45% admit that they sometimes do not speak for fear of ‘punishment.’”

Indeed, this finding, as Adam Goldstein, senior research counsel to the president, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says, “mirrors what has been shown in other surveys.”

“The fact that so many Americans are afraid of expressing their ideas is deeply worrying. Today we take for granted that the government cannot tell us what to say. But a culture of self-censorship is just as dangerous to democracy as government censorship,” says Christopher Finan, National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) executive director.

More: 33% of Americans said speech is the most vital freedom, but some would limit it.

Not surprising: Academic freedom is increasingly challenged

Most people (58%) think college campuses should foster a free expression of ideas, even if those ideas are offensive to some. At the same time, more than a third (36%) think universities represent a threat to the First Amendment.

Experts from organizations like FIRE and the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) weren’t surprised at these findings, noting that the disconnect between the ideal and reality of campus speech is ripe for eroding trust.

“Faculty have faced steadily mounting threats to their speech rights in recent years, often in the form of student protests and administrative disciplinary proceedings over controversial speech,” says Keith E. Whittington, chair of the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance.

“Universities have allowed students to shout down speakers to prevent disagreeable views from being heard,” agrees Peter Prichard, Freedom Forum trustee and former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. “‘Cancel culture’ threatens free speech.”

“Our public education system does a very poor job of modeling respect for First Amendment values,” says Frank LoMonte, director, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, leaving the First Amendment a “damaged brand.”

Not surprising: Press distrust is high

While most Americans want the news media to be a watchdog on government, just 14% say they have strong trust in journalists. Many are troubled by so-called “fake news” in the form of mis- and disinformation online.

This “validates all we suspect and know about how Americans feel about freedom of the press,” says Wanda S. Lloyd, journalist and author of “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism,” noting that “many national and local news organizations spend plenty of human and financial capital providing quality investigative and watchdog reporting. [But] many so-called news organizations are leaning more and more in one direction — either uber-liberal or uber-conservative.”

Similarly, the IFS’s Smith says, “Bias, agenda-based reporting and just plain sloppy journalism have led 74% of Americans to think ‘fake news’ is a problem and 72% favor banning it. Such overwhelming majorities suggest a rejection of mainstream news reporting, not just fringe publications.”

This growing distrust is troubling. “If we don’t support journalists of integrity — and there are many,” says Paulson, “we’ll lose our most potent weapons against government corruption and overreach.”

LoMonte put it even more starkly: “It’s not sustainable for a functioning democracy if a majority of voters actively avoid becoming informed.”

More: Most Americans think the press should be a watchdog on the powerful, but 41% say journalists are a threat to the First Amendment.

Not surprising: Awareness of assembly is up — but most people still don’t protest

Awareness of the right to assembly is up, with 65% able to identify it from a list of options as a First Amendment freedom — not a surprise after a tumultuous year of protests peaking just before the survey was fielded in fall 2020. “The social justice protests were covered by the media and millions upon millions witnessed fellow Americans taking to the streets to galvanize for social change,” says Freedom Forum fellow David Hudson.

But still, most Americans — 69% — say they have never participated in a protest. “Activism always has been a cause for the committed few who are willing to put their principles into action and even their lives on the line,” says Hudson.

More: In an era of historic protest, 69% have never participated in a protest, rally or march.

Surprising: Americans petition more than they realize

The right to petition has sometimes been called “the forgotten freedom,” says Hudson, with few able to identify it as a freedom. Awareness of petition is up, though, with 14% able to name it offhand.

And many Americans have participated in petitioning the government. “Even more encouraging than public familiarity with and support for free speech rights is the fact that substantial percentages of the public have actually exercised these rights regarding issues of public concern,” says Strossen, “speech that is especially important in our democratic republic.”

Almost half of people (45%) can identify petition as a First Amendment freedom. Nearly as many have petitioned their elected officials in some way: “I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who had volunteered with a local organization [41%] or a political campaign [24%], contacted an elected official [40%], or spoken up at a school board or town hall meeting [35%],” says Freedom Forum Fellow Lata Nott. “These are all activities that take more time and energy, and have much more of an impact, than say, posting something on social media or signing an online petition. I’m impressed that so many people are civically engaged.”

More: Few know petition is a First Amendment freedom, but most say they have petitioned.

Surprising: Support for constitutional education is mixed

The survey revealed some significant gaps in First Amendment knowledge, but also showed that most Americans want future generations to better understand the Constitution. “Civics is as important to the health of our society as math and science are to economic prosperity,” says Finan, citing the 84% of respondents who support requiring public schools to educate students about the Constitution. “The future of our democracy demands that we educate students as citizens, not just workers.”

But Americans are unsure about some forms of First Amendment education: 39% say public schools should teach about religion from an academic and constitutional perspective; 32% disagreed and 29% weren’t sure. “These results may seem surprising given that the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear for more than 60 years that the academic study of religion is not only permissible under the First Amendment — it is necessary for a complete education,” says Charles Haynes, Freedom Forum senior fellow for religious liberty. “One explanation for public confusion about this issue may be our long and tortuous history of getting religion wrong in public schools.”

Following a series of Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, Haynes says, many either demanded all mention of religion be removed from curricula or decried that schools had banned God. “Both sides — intentionally or unintentionally — misrepresented what the Supreme Court actually ruled: Under the First Amendment, religion can neither be promoted nor denigrated by school officials but students are free to express their faith in schools, as long as such expression is not disruptive and does not interfere with the rights of others.”

More: Religion is a much-valued freedom, but people are divided about its role in public life.

The “Where America Stands” survey paints a complex picture of Americans’ First Amendment knowledge and attitudes, both concerning and hopeful.

Gaps in First Amendment knowledge and willingness to compromise some of its core values are troubling. “In 55 years of involvement with these issues, I can’t recall a time when First Amendment freedoms were less secure,” says Prichard. “This landmark survey shows that most of today’s threats don’t come from government, but from ourselves.”

But broad support for the vitality of the First Amendment to democracy — and the passion with which respondents spoke of its importance — point to the possibility of reaffirming its foundations with ongoing education, advocacy and action.

“We now know we are building on a foundation where an overwhelming majority of Americans see the First Amendment as vital and valued, and that gives us hope for the future.” — Jan Neuharth, Freedom Forum chair and chief executive officer

Find the full survey results at WhereAmericaStands.org.

Karen Hansen is content managing editor at the Freedom Forum. You can reach her at [email protected].

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