In a recent AmeriSpeak panel conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, FIRE asked 1,140 Americans if they could name any of the specific rights protected by the First Amendment. The results were dismal.
Almost a third of Americans could not name a single enumerated right protected by the First Amendment and another 40% could name only one — usually freedom of speech. Among Americans who named one or more enumerated rights, roughly two-thirds (65%) named freedom of speech, about a quarter (26%) named freedom of religion, 20% named the right to assemble, 15% named freedom of the press, and 8% named the right to petition. Only 3% of Americans could name all five and, on average, could name 1.33 First Amendment rights. These findings are similar to those found in the August 2022 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey.
In other words, Americans’ knowledge of the First Amendment remains poor.
Gender, political, and generational differences
The AmeriSpeak panel is funded and operated by NORC, and is a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. household population. Although knowledge of the First Amendment was low across the board, some notable differences did emerge. Generally, males were able to name significantly more rights than females, although they still averaged less than two (1.47 and 1.23, respectively). Males were also significantly more likely to name four-of-five First Amendment rights than females were:
- 69% of males named freedom of speech compared to 61% of females.
- 24% of males named the right to assemble compared to 16% of females.
- 18% of males named freedom of the press compared to 12% of females.
- 11% of males named a right to petition compared to 5% of females.
These findings may reflect greater interest in the First Amendment among males. Other surveys have found that, compared to females, males are more likely to adopt an absolutist stance on the First Amendment and are more willing to allow the expression of statements that are offensive or hateful. Scholarship has long documented that males are also more opposed to censorship in a number of different content domains.
Older Americans appear to be the most knowledgeable about the First Amendment.
Liberals were significantly more likely to name at least one right and significantly more likely to name at least two rights compared to moderates and conservatives. One-third of conservatives and 27% of moderates could not name a single right, compared to 15% of liberals. Liberals also named significantly more rights on average than moderates did, although, as with males above, liberals still named less than two rights on average (1.56 and 1.28, respectively).
Generational differences are also evident. Americans aged 18-29 were significantly less likely to name free speech (55%) than other Americans, particularly those aged 45-59 (67%) and those aged 60 and older (70%). Those aged 18-29 (19%) and those aged 45-59 (21%) were also significantly less likely to name freedom of religion as a right guaranteed by the First Amendment, compared to Americans aged 30-44 (30%) and those aged 60 and older (29%). Thus, older Americans appear to be the most knowledgeable about the First Amendment, suggesting that knowledge may decline further as they age and represent a smaller overall portion of the American population.
College-educated respondents are more knowledgeable about the First Amendment
Americans with a bachelor’s degree or higher could name significantly more rights protected by the First Amendment than Americans without a high school diploma, those who graduated high school, or those with some college experience. Among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, 80% named freedom of speech, 34% named freedom of religion, 29% named the right to assemble, 20% named freedom of the press, and 11% named the right to petition.
The average number of rights named by the most educated Americans surveyed — those with graduate or professional degrees — was still less than two (1.89). Americans with no college experience could name, on average, less than one right protected by the First Amendment.
Improving First Amendment knowledge
These findings indicate an alarmingly low level of civic knowledge among the American populace. According to the Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, awareness of the First Amendment has dropped precipitously in the past few years. In 2021, 74% of Americans named freedom of speech as a right the First Amendment protects; 56% named freedom of religion; 50% named freedom of the press; 30% named a right to assemble; and 20% named a right to petition the government. Likewise, a 2021 Freedom Forum survey found that 78% of Americans named freedom of speech, 49% named freedom of religion, 34% named freedom of the press, 39% named freedom of assembly, and 14% named a right to petition.
Americans cannot protect, preserve, and exercise their rights if they don’t know what those rights are.
But, there exists a ray of hope, as the Freedom Forum has also consistently found that high school students who have taken classes that include content about the First Amendment are more supportive of free speech rights. This suggests that a culture of free speech can be fostered by increasing knowledge of the First Amendment.
FIRE can help do this. We offer a variety of free courses on the First Amendment including “The History of Free Speech,” “Can I Publish This?” and “The Case for Radically Free Speech.” We provide college orientation materials and maintain a syllabus database of courses that focus on freedom of expression and provide teaching resources (e.g., PowerPoint slide decks; short, impactful videos) to help K-12 teachers enrich and supplement their existing instruction on the First Amendment. We even send out complimentary copies of our comic book, “Finding Your Voice,” which shows teens the empowering effects of knowing and using their First Amendment rights.
Ultimately, Americans cannot protect, preserve, and exercise their rights if they don’t know what those rights are. It’s incumbent on us as individuals and as a society to maintain our awareness of the language so foundational to our civic life, shared institutions, and democracy.