Four First Amendment ‘where America stands’ findings that surprised experts (and 3 that didn’t)

First Five by the Freedom Forum Institute

Sep 30, 2021

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The Freedom Forum’s newly released “The First Amendment: Where America Stands” survey gives a deep and detailed picture of Americans’ knowledge of and attitudes about the five freedoms the amendment protects. Their views are as diverse and divided as our country itself.

We asked a wide range of First Amendment advocates and experts what struck them most about our findings. Several trends emerged — so did a few surprises.


The First Amendment can be confusing. While most people know it applies at all levels of government, most also expect it to protect freedoms in more aspects of society than it does. Only 26% of Americans know the First Amendment does not apply in private workplaces — nor does it protect free expression in many places we frequently interact.

“Several survey answers consistently showed that a large majority of Americans do not realize that the First Amendment offers no protection against censorship by powerful private sector entities, including social media companies ... professional sports team owners ... and employers,” says Nadine Strossen, professor at New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Though many Americans mistakenly see the First Amendment protecting expression in ways it does not, attitudes about free speech also reflect contradictions and questions about just how far speech can go.


Some experts, like Strossen, noted being pleasantly surprised at generally strong support for free speech — even controversial speech. Others noted cause for concern.

“It’s a little unsettling when a full 94% of respondents embrace the vitality and importance of the First Amendment, yet a third are willing to write off what is arguably the most essential of its liberties to prevent unpalatable words,” said Ken Paulson, director, Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University. “There’s a serious disconnect between ideals and practice there.”

“Presumably, people who take this position [that hate speech should be banned] think that no one would ever call their belief system ‘hate speech,’” says Bradley Smith, chairman of the Institute for Free Speech (IFS). “And yet, 45% admit that they sometimes do not speak for fear of ‘punishment.’”


Most people (58%) think college campuses should foster a free expression of ideas, even if those ideas are offensive to some. At the same time, more than a third (36%) think universities represent a threat to the First Amendment.

Experts from organizations like FIRE and the Academic Freedom Alliance (AFA) weren’t surprised at these findings, noting that the disconnect between the ideal and reality of campus speech is ripe for eroding trust.

“Faculty have faced steadily mounting threats to their speech rights in recent years, often in the form of student protests and administrative disciplinary proceedings over controversial speech,” says Keith E. Whittington, chair of the Academic Committee of the Academic Freedom Alliance.

“Universities have allowed students to shout down speakers to prevent disagreeable views from being heard,” agrees Peter Prichard, Freedom Forum trustee and former editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. “‘Cancel culture’ threatens free speech.”

“Our public education system does a very poor job of modeling respect for First Amendment values,” says Frank LoMonte, director, University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, leaving the First Amendment a “damaged brand.”


While most Americans want the news media to be a watchdog on government, just 14% say they have strong trust in journalists. Many are troubled by so-called “fake news” in the form of mis- and disinformation online.

This “validates all we suspect and know about how Americans feel about freedom of the press,” says Wanda S. Lloyd, journalist and author of “Coming Full Circle: From Jim Crow to Journalism,” noting that “many national and local news organizations spend plenty of human and financial capital providing quality investigative and watchdog reporting. [But] many so-called news organizations are leaning more and more in one direction — either uber-liberal or uber-conservative.”

Similarly, the IFS’s Smith says, “Bias, agenda-based reporting and just plain sloppy journalism have led 74% of Americans to think ‘fake news’ is a problem and 72% favor banning it. Such overwhelming majorities suggest a rejection of mainstream news reporting, not just fringe publications.”

This growing distrust is troubling. “If we don’t support journalists of integrity — and there are many,” says Paulson, “we’ll lose our most potent weapons against government corruption and overreach.”

LoMonte put it even more starkly: “It's not sustainable for a functioning democracy if a majority of voters actively avoid becoming informed.”


Awareness of the right to assembly is up, with 65% able to identify it from a list of options as a First Amendment freedom — not a surprise after a tumultuous year of protests peaking just before the survey was fielded in fall 2020. “The social justice protests were covered by the media and millions upon millions witnessed fellow Americans taking to the streets to galvanize for social change,” says Freedom Forum fellow David Hudson.

But still, most Americans — 69% — say they have never participated in a protest. “Activism always has been a cause for the committed few who are willing to put their principles into action and even their lives on the line,” says Hudson.


The right to petition has sometimes been called “the forgotten freedom,” says Hudson, with few able to identify it as a freedom. Awareness of petition is up, though, with 14% able to name it offhand.


The survey revealed some significant gaps in First Amendment knowledge, but also showed that most Americans want future generations to better understand the Constitution. “Civics is as important to the health of our society as math and science are to economic prosperity,” says Finan, citing the 84% of respondents who support requiring public schools to educate students about the Constitution. “The future of our democracy demands that we educate students as citizens, not just workers.”

But Americans are unsure about some forms of First Amendment education: 39% say public schools should teach about religion from an academic and constitutional perspective; 32% disagreed and 29% weren’t sure. “These results may seem surprising given that the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear for more than 60 years that the academic study of religion is not only permissible under the First Amendment — it is necessary for a complete education,” says Charles Haynes, Freedom Forum senior fellow for religious liberty. “One explanation for public confusion about this issue may be our long and tortuous history of getting religion wrong in public schools.”

Following a series of Supreme Court cases in the 1960s, Haynes says, many either demanded all mention of religion be removed from curricula or decried that schools had banned God. “Both sides — intentionally or unintentionally — misrepresented what the Supreme Court actually ruled: Under the First Amendment, religion can neither be promoted nor denigrated by school officials but students are free to express their faith in schools, as long as such expression is not disruptive and does not interfere with the rights of others.”

Find the full survey results at

Karen Hansen is the Freedom Forum content managing editor. You can reach Karen at