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 [email protected], or follow her on Twitter at @LataNott.

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

  1. Absolutely it matters that people don’t understand the contents of the First Amendment.

    They don’t understand that it ONLY applies to Congress. And scream that their right to “free speech” is being violated when any reasonable person tells them that their opinion is crap. Essentially what I am saying is – 75% of people in the U.S. are complete and utter idiots.

  2. it’s incredible how many Americans do not understand that these freedoms are between the people and the government… It’s also incredible how many Americans have never even read their own constitution.

    • Yes. On assets they own (property, building, website, etc.) – or if the speech is made that is against their policy (bashing the company, disclosing confidential information about the company, etc.). An employee can be terminate WITH CAUSE (with cause being key here) for violating the companies rules or work policy.

      • Let me further add that a company terminating you for say, using a racial slur on their property, is not violating your 1st amendment rights, as the right is between the public and the government. Therefore, the violation of the 1st amendment is moot.

  3. Thank you Ms Nott, as we all need a good reminder concerning the fullness of our cherished fist amendment rights and how they are linked together so carefully. Trump needs to read these rights, or have them read to him, and gain a better understanding of how the US differs from Russia in these respects. It might help him get a better grasp of why his buddy Vlad will never allow any of these 5 parts of our First Amendment to flourish in Russia. Vlad is not to be respected, though our First Amendment allows you the right to do so, regardless of the stupidity of the placement of that respect. Wake up, Donald Trump.

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