Does it really matter that Americans don’t know exactly what the First Amendment says?

The majority of Americans are supportive of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, but are also unaware of exactly what those rights are, according to the recently released 2018 State of the First Amendment survey by the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute.

When asked if the First Amendment goes too far in the rights that it protects, more than three-fourths of Americans disagree. That’s fairly good news, but it’s somewhat tempered by the fact that a third of Americans cannot name a single freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Another third can only name one. Only one survey respondent out of a sample of 1,009 could name all five. And 9 percent of Americans think that the First Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms. (For the record, that’s the Second Amendment.)

But does it really matter that Americans don’t know exactly what the First Amendment says? After all, while no one’s done a survey on the state of the Third Amendment, I’d wager that most Americans have no clue what rights that one guarantees and I’m not losing any sleep over that. (In case you’re curious, the Third Amendment says that no one can force you to quarter British soldiers inside your home. The issue doesn’t come up much these days.)

But First Amendment issues do come up a lot (just look at the number of First Amendment-related decisions the Supreme Court made this term). And the fact that Americans are generally aware that the First Amendment gives them the right to express themselves but are pretty fuzzy on its actual details is problematic. As any teacher can tell you, a little knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge at all. In this case, it leads to people passionately invoking the First Amendment in some circumstances and ignoring its existence in others.

So, for a quick review, the First Amendment grants us five freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. All of these freedoms are interconnected. The freedom of religion prevents the government from establishing its own religion, and from favoring one religion over another. It also keeps the government from interfering with the way people practice their religious beliefs. Religious freedom is a powerful thing, even if you yourself are not religious. It essentially grants each individual the freedom to develop their own conscience and their own values. The government doesn’t get to tell you what your values should be — that’s for you to decide.

Freedom of speech protects your right to express those values, even if that expression is critical of the government. Freedom of the press guarantees your right to uncensored information about the world around you and especially information about what your government is doing. And if you don’t like what the government is doing — if its actions contradict the values you cherish — you have the freedom of petition, which is the freedom to ask for the laws you want, and the freedom to assemble a group of like-minded people to give that request some political heft. We need all five of these freedoms to have a democracy that ensures comprehensive protection of the American citizenry.

As a country, we’ll probably always disagree about what the precise limits of the First Amendment should be. People will certainly always invoke the First Amendment in a self-serving manner, championing some of these freedoms while discounting others — think of Milo Yiannopoulos presenting himself as a defender of free speech but calling for vigilante squads to target journalists. Yes, it’s his First Amendment right to make tasteless comments. But hopefully one day Americans will understand the First Amendment well enough to recognize how disingenuous it is to treat it like an a la carte menu.

Lata Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. Contact her via email at lnott@freedomforum.org, or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

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