The Freedom Forum Institute recently conducted a survey to gauge American’s views on our most important piece of law: the First Amendment to the Constitution. This, the first of ten Bill of Rights, lays out vitals rights protected for American citizens. While the survey discovered that most Americans embrace the First Amendment, there were a few issues.
What’s the point of the Bill of Rights? Some think that these ten amendments are rights granted to American citizens by the U.S. government. That’s not the case. These are rights we have as humans, granted to us by God. Don’t believe in God? That’s fine, these rights belong to us by virtue of being alive.
These rights belong to us by default. But, as we’ve seen throughout history, corrupt governments have denied citizens these rights. Tyrants, dictators, and overreaching regimes love to harass the populace by denying them these rights. Naturally, you can’t control and manipulate a nation, if they stand up for their human rights.
In the United States, the Bill of Rights outlines key rights that the U.S. government is prevented from taking away from us. They aren’t giving us these rights; they are simply denied the power to infringe on them. Most Americans are raised to appreciate the fact that we have such freedoms. We even call America a “free country” because of the many rights protected by the Constitution.
But these rights are meaningless if we don’t use them. Even in America, there are people who would rather you didn’t know your rights. From police to corrupt politicians (to the media) there are some who could get away with plenty if the public didn’t stand up.
With all that said, what is the most important thing about protecting your rights? Well, knowing them for starters.
But it looks like that while most Americans agree we need the First Amendment, they have a hard time naming what it actually protects.
A recent survey by the Freedom Forum Institute (FFI) found that while a vast majority of Americans claim to support First Amendment rights, many cannot define what those rights are.
According to FFI’s annual “State of the First Amendment” survey, which polled 1,009 American adults, 74 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees to U.S. citizens, yet 40 percent could not correctly identify a single one of those rights.
Similarly, 36 percent of respondents could list just one of the freedoms protected by the amendment, while just one respondent could list all five. (Campus Reform)
Just so we’re clear, here is the First Amendment:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This short paragraph lays out five pretty important rights. Not only does it clearly explain what Americans are free to enjoy, but specifically how the government cannot infringe on them.
The amendment protects you from the government prohibiting your speech. That includes anything and everything you say. That means the government cannot censor what you say, barring direct statements that incite violence. According to the government, there is no such thing as hate speech. That’s important to understand.
The amendment protects your freedom to worship (or not worship). It also ensures that the government cannot prohibit the free press. The final two rights, the ones often forgotten, give Americans the right to peacefully protest and petition the government.
According to the survey, the vast majority of Americans agree the First Amendment is necessary. That’s comforting. People who don’t care about their rights don’t use them. It’s a short ride from that to letting the government take those rights away. But what does it say about so many not knowing what those rights are?
Some people in the survey confused the First Amendment with the Second, claiming it protected gun rights. A bit of a slip-up, but at least they knew one of their rights.
Why is this significant? Well, you can’t exercise rights you don’t know you have. And in today’s extremely hostile political climate, we often see people under attack for their beliefs. We are seeing a massive erosion in tolerance among people of differing views. That is directly related to the misunderstanding of our freedoms.
Free speech doesn’t mean you have to agree with what someone says. But it does mean you have to accept the fact they have the right to say it. Being forced to do that will engender (in decent people) an ability to agree to disagree. That’s the start of compromise and learning to get along with people who are different than you.
Today entire careers are destroyed, thanks to tasteless jokes or comments. Misspoke on Twitter five years ago? It might come back to ruin you. Is that fair? Not at all. It’s a product of the heightened anger people feel towards those who disagree with them. And that is the result of years of attacks on our freedoms.
An attitude among extremists—both on the right and left—don’t believe we should have freedoms like free speech. The idea that anyone can say whatever they want has become increasingly unpopular. It has only gained steam because so many don’t understand their rights and the importance of those rights.
The survey also found that many think public universities should uninvite guest speakers who might be controversial.
51 percent of Americans surveyed believe that public universities should be able to “retract invitations to controversial speakers” if their remarks would “provoke large-scale protests from students.”
Similarly, 42 percent of respondents supported disinviting speakers who would be “likely to offend some groups or individuals,” and 47 percent approved of administrators censoring events “supported by public funds.” (Campus Reform)
This only adds to the toxic setting on campuses. Students are already taught to hide from ideas they don’t like. The only way to break out of that idea is to be exposed to new ideas. Schools funded by the government who uninvite guests might be violating the First Amendment. Not that these students know that, apparently.
The good news is, this crisis can easily be remedied. The more people who understand their rights, the more people who will use them. Use the very rights that are in jeopardy to educate those you seem to be uninformed.
Maybe they’ll come around and actually protect those rights. We can only hope.