Understanding American’s View of the First Amendment: Breakdown of Freedom Forum’s Recent Survey

First Amendment
The First Amendment: Where America Stands, a project from the Freedom Forum.

The First Amendment (to the United States Constitution) is often referenced in today’s society, but without being prompted can you name all five freedoms that are protected? This was part of a survey administered for The First Amendment: Where America Stands, a project from the Freedom Forum. Freedom Forum, as an organization, strives to raise awareness of First Amendment freedoms through education, advocacy, and action. They put on events focusing on different aspects of the First Amendment, such as a webinar on hate speech, highlighting excellence in the media, and a webinar on combatting religious intolerance. This project surveyed over 3,000 Americans in summer 2020, asking them more than 200 questions to provide a detailed analysis of how people differ on the relevance of the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett struggles to identify the freedom of protest/redress during her confirmation hearing on October 14, 2020.
Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett

First, let’s get back to the question of what are the five freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment. When naming them unprompted, 78% of respondents identified freedom of speech, followed by religion (49%), assembly (39%), and press (34%). Many respondents could not name the fifth freedom. If you’re blanking on it too, you’re not alone. During the nomination hearing for now Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, Senator Ben Sasse (R-NE) asked Barrett “What are the five freedoms of the First Amendment?” While she rapidly fired off speech, religion, press, and assembly, Barrett struggled to name the fifth freedom which Sasse states is “redress or protest.” The Where America Stands survey calls it the freedom to petition the government, and only 14% could name it unprompted. As a matter of fact, some other freedoms had a larger percentage of respondents mistakenly identify them as part of the first amendment. These included the right to bear arms (18%; 2nd Amendment), the right to vote (17%, 15th, 19th, and 26th Amendments), and the right to due process (14%, 5th amendment).

In addition to naming the freedoms, respondents were also asked which freedom they felt was most important. The largest proportions were speech (33%) and religion (14%), with only small groups believing petition (5%), press (4%), and assembly (3%) is the most important. 41% said that all five freedoms are equally essential. As a whole, 94% of Americans consider the First Amendment is vital to democracy in the United States.

So how do the results of the survey relate to current top issues in the United States right now? In one of my previous blog posts, I took a look at legislation being passed targeted at intellectual freedom on college campuses. Some of the legislation focused on what instructors could teach and how individuals can express themselves on campus. 58% of respondents believe college campuses should foster a free expression of ideas, “even if those ideas are offensive to some.”  Colleges and universities were included in the question, “How much of a threat to the First Amendment is each of the below?” 36% answered either a significant threat (17%) or somewhat of a threat (19%). However 21% said they are only a small threat and 34% answered they were no threat at all.

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there are some people that protest various limitations and mandates on the basis of First Amendment rights violations. Some mandates, however, do specifically honor First Amendment protections such as the freedom of religion. In California, for example, the state is now requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all schoolchildren, though religious exemptions can be granted. Back to the survey, respondents were given a list of statements and asked to indicate whether they agree or disagree. Related to the pandemic, one statement read:

Government orders requiring social distancing, limiting meeting attendance, or requiring face masks during a public health crisis are an infringement on First Amendment rights of assembly, speech, and/or religion.

California residents protest against vaccine and COVID-19 testing requirements.

25% of respondents agreed with this statement, however 58% disagreed. Freedom Forum revealed that Evangelical Christians were the group to most likely consider such restrictions an infringement on their First Amendment Rights with 38%. California also recently passed a law to limit protests outside vaccination clinics. There are some concerns, however, that this law infringes on the freedoms of speech and assembly.

Amidst increasing skepticism towards journalists, the survey revealed additional insights. Only 14% of respondents “completely trust” journalists, while 29% do not trust at all. In July 2021, Pew Research published data on average audience for cable TV news. For primetime coverage, Fox News had just under 3.1 million viewers, while CNN and MSNBC had an average of 1.8 million and 1.6 million views respectively. Respondents answered whether they trusted various media sources. Below is a summary of the results for Fox, CNN, and MSNBC:

Do Not Trust at AllCompletely Trust
Fox News38%16%

The most trusted source, as indicated by respondents, is PBS with 31% trusting the news outlet.

Misinformation has been a major issue the past several years, so naturally the survey asked various questions regarding it. In a summary of misinformation, disinformation, and social media, the survey reveals that nearly 75% of Americans are troubled by inaccurate or skewed sources and would limit press and speech to combat this. Additionally, 69% believe social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, should be held responsible for allowing false or misleading information to be posted.

This discussion is just a portion of the survey results. You can view the full report compiled by Freedom Forum here.

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