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New Survey Details American Attitudes Toward the First Amendment

By July 5, 2016

On Friday, the Newseum Institute issued its annual “State of the First Amendment” report, detailing the results of a survey—conducted in partnership with USA Today—of American attitudes toward free speech and the First Amendment. This is the 19th edition of the report, which began in 1997 and helps track American attitudes toward the First Amendment over time. While the survey’s results reflect Americans’ broad commitment to free speech, they also suggest a troubling inclination to abandon this commitment when it comes to college campuses.

As in past years, those surveyed often don’t know which of their rights come from where. The Newseum Institute’s report shows that nearly 40 percent of those surveyed were unable to name a single freedom protected by the First Amendment. Only 54 percent were able to identify that the First Amendment protects freedom of speech.

The results weren’t all bad, though. The survey also asked: “If you have to choose, which do you think is more important? Protecting people’s ability to say what they want, or protecting people from hearing things that offend them?” Respondents overwhelmingly favored protecting speech over protecting people from being offended, 86 percent to 10 percent.

Alarmingly, the support for free speech dropped substantially when college campuses were introduced into the question. When asked whether they agree that “[c]ollege students should be allowed to say whatever they want on college campuses even if what they say is offensive to others,” respondents supported speech only 57 percent of the time. Forty percent disagreed with that statement.

These disappointing—albeit telling—survey results clearly indicate that there is a substantial need for First Amendment education in the college community. If students are to be in the best position to protect their own rights, they should be educated about the breadth of those rights, whether on or off the college campus.

Student activists who advocate for free speech on campus should take note. Be sure to check out our FIRE Student Network page for tips on how to advocate for free speech at your school! You can also order free copies of FIRE’s various Guides to Student Rights on Campus and education resources on our website. Our materials include the Guide to Free Speech on Campus, an excellent primer on First Amendment rights on campus.

You can read the full report on the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center website.