Yesterday the Newseum Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting First Amendment freedoms, released its 17th annual “State of the First Amendment” survey, sponsored by the First Amendment Center. The survey of more than 1000 adults across the country reveals that freedom of speech is our most cherished right. Yet one third of survey participants said the First Amendment “goes too far in protecting individual rights;” last year that figure was a mere 13%.
The report suggests that this might be a temporary spike due to the timing of the survey, but it is a troubling result nonetheless:
It is important to note that this survey was conducted in May, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing. This jump in the percentage of individuals who think the First Amendment goes too far represents Americans’ increased willingness to give up their rights and freedoms in return for greater security when they feel threatened. An even greater increase in willingness to trade freedom for security occurred after the September 2001 terrorist attacks ….
This trade is one we make at our peril. The right to criticize the government and freely debate controversial subjects is arguably most important in times of turmoil. And constitutional rights mean very little if they are guaranteed only when the stakes are low.
Further, the survey results indicate that older people support more First Amendment protections:
Higher percentages of young Americans tend to agree with the statement that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights that it guarantees. Forty-seven percent of 18-30-year-olds agree, while 44% of 31-45-year-olds, 24% of 46-60-year-olds and 23% of people over 60 agree that the First Amendment goes too far.
The survey results demonstrate the same phenomenon FIRE President Greg Lukianoff warns of in his book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. With speech codes so prevalent on college campuses today, students are essentially being conditioned to accept restrictions on free speech and other constitutional rights. Indeed, the youngest segment of survey participants favored greater restrictions on First Amendment rights in the highest proportion! Further, many are not even aware of what rights they have; 36% of respondents could not name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson expressed disappointment at these numbers, and emphasized the need for ongoing education and advocacy.
“It’s unsettling to see a third of Americans view the First Amendment as providing too much liberty …. This underscores the need for more First Amendment education. If we truly understand the essential role of these freedoms in a democracy, we’re more likely to protect them,” Paulson said.
Newseum Institute Chief Operating Officer Gene Policinski shared Paulson’s feelings:
“Americans remain generally supportive of First Amendment freedoms. But the inability of most to even name the freedoms, combined with the increase of those who think the freedoms go too far, shows how quickly that support can erode,” said Policinski. “As a nation, we must better prepare our fellow and future citizens for the hard decision of defending core freedoms against those who would damage or limit them by violence or by law.”
FIRE offers its Guides to Student Rights on Campus and other resources for students and faculty members to serve this goal—to educate citizens so that they may better protect their individual rights.
Some survey figures were a bit more encouraging, though. Seventy-three percent of survey participants agreed that “[m]usicians should be allowed to sing song lyrics that others might find offensive”—an increase over the past two years—and 75% agreed that “high school students should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights just as adults do.”
Regardless of the numbers, it is critically important that all citizens be informed of their rights and vigorously defend those rights—even when exercised by people with whom they disagree. The First Amendment Center’s survey sheds light on the need for this constant vigilance. Paulson ended his commentary on the survey with this message:
Unless we daily reaffirm our right to America’s core liberties and speak out against government encroachment upon any of them, our collective freedom is at risk. “United we stand” is not just a motto.