Just 45 words protect our core freedoms every day

Jun 30, 2014

By Gene Policinski
Inside the First Amendment 

WASHINGTON — C'mon people — it's just 45 words!

We'll even give you the Twitter version: Freedom of Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition.

There, a whole lesson in what it means to be a citizen of the United States — and the answers to some the questions on the actual test that you have to pass to become a citizen.

Perhaps that's why 29% of respondents to the 2014 State of the First Amendment survey, released today, couldn't name one — they don't have to. Those of us living in the U.S. enjoy its protection of our core freedoms by virtue of living here.

And while it's valuable to know what the five freedoms are — once again: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — it's even more important to know how we can use them, and how to defend them if someone means to restrict or take away those basic rights away.

Clearly we care about the freedoms — for many years in the annual national survey of adults, conducted since 1997 by the Newseum Institute's First Amendment Center, respondents have said by a ratio of about two to one that the First Amendment does not go too far in the rights it guarantees. This year, 57% said the amendment has it right, while 38% disagreed. (The remaining 5% refused to respond or didn't know how they felt).

Of course, those of us in the "First Amendment business" are worried about this year's 38% who said it does go too far. That means about one-third of our fellow citizens would rein in one of our basic freedoms — freedoms which we have preserved essentially intact since 1791.

It appears that the news media and the concept of religious liberty are most at issue:

While just 33% of survey respondents said the news media tries to report the news without bias, 80% said it's important for the news media to act as a watchdog on government, and a majority (54%) does not favor court orders forcing journalist to reveal their sources.

61% of those responding said that religious-affiliated groups should be required to provide health care benefits to same-sex partners of employees, even if the group opposes same-sex marriages or partnerships, while 54% said businesses providing wedding services should be required to serve same-sex couples even if the business owner had religious objections to such marriages. But 66% also said that since the Supreme Court has held that corporations, like people, have certain free speech rights, corporations similarly should have certain religious rights.

Those who advocate for fewer limits on student free speech in public schools likely are pleased to see a major uptick in support for student newspapers being able to tackle controversial subjects without prior approval from school authorities. This year, 68% said they agree that no approval should be required, while just 27% disagreed. In 2001, just 40% supported the idea of no approval, while 58% said it was needed. Also noteworthy, in 2001, 36% strongly opposed students reporting on controversial subject matter without prior ok. This year, only eight percent were strongly opposed.

Similarly, asked if high school students should have the same freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights as do adults, 78% said "yes," while only 19% said "no."

This year's survey shows that the highest number of respondents could identify "speech" (68%) and "religion" (29%) as two of the five freedoms — both highest in the history of the survey — but the numbers were the same as in 2013 for "press" (14%) and lower for assembly (7%) and petition (1%) than last year.

This year's survey demonstrates that more Americans are backing free expression in areas of our society that have not always enjoyed popular support, from students to same-sex couples. And while people may not see journalists today as unbiased, there's still great endorsement of the role of a free press, from being a "watchdog" to the use of confidential sources in performing that role.

Knowing our freedoms is a good thing. Supporting them, using them and protecting them — and renewing our commitment to those efforts as we celebrate our nation's independence once again — are even better.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of its First Amendment Center. He can be reached atgpolicinski@newseum.org.