SURVEY: Americans support 1A rights, but don’t know what they are

Emma Meshell
Program Coordinator

  • The Freedom Forum Institute's annual "State of the First Amendment" survey has found that while 74 percent of Americans say they support the First Amendment, nearly half could not identify a single one of the rights that it protects.
  • Meanwhile, roughly half of those surveyed said public universities should be able to disinvite "controversial" speakers, such as those who are likely to provoke protests or cause offense to certain groups or individuals.
  • A recent survey by the Freedom Forum Institute (FFI) found that while a vast majority of Americans claim to support First Amendment rights, many cannot define what those rights are. 

    According to FFI’s annual “State of the First Amendment” survey, which polled 1,009 American adults, 74 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the First Amendment “goes too far” in the rights it guarantees to U.S. citizens, yet 40 percent could not correctly identify a single one of those rights.

    "Even though most Americans can’t name all the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, they have strong opinions about the specific First Amendment issues that pop up in their lives."   

    Similarly, 36 percent of respondents could list just one of the freedoms protected by the amendment, while just one respondent could list all five.

    [RELATED: Poll: 19% of students endorse violence to 'prevent' speakers]

    According to the report, 56 percent of respondents recalled that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech, 15 percent mentioned freedom of religion, 13 percent remembered freedom of the press, 12 percent noted the right to assembly, and just 2 percent cited the right to petition. 

    Meanwhile, nine percent erroneously asserted that the First Amendment protects the right to bear arms, a freedom that is actually guaranteed by the Second Amendment.

    The discrepancy between expressed support and demonstrated understanding of the First Amendment may help explain some of the survey’s other results, such as the respondents’ willingness to let universities ignore the First Amendment when dealing with “controversial speakers.”

    The study found that 51 percent of Americans surveyed believe that public universities should be able to “retract invitations to controversial speakers” if their remarks would “provoke large-scale protests from students.”

    Similarly, 42 percent of respondents supported disinviting speakers who would be “likely to offend some groups or individuals,” and 47 percent approved of administrators censoring events that “supported by public funds.”

    [RELATED: POLL: 3-in-5 students say campus climate 'deters speech']

    Democrat respondents, notably, were significantly more likely than Republicans to endorse the cancellation of controversial speakers, while Independents were generally in line with the overall results.

    Whereas 54 percent of Democrats supported cancelling a potentially offensive speaker, for instance, only 31 percent of Republicans agreed. Likewise, 61 percent of Democrats supported disinviting a speaker who would be likely to provoke student protests, compared to 45 percent of Republicans.

    FFI also notes that race and gender both appeared to influence responses, finding that females were more likely than males to support cancelling a speech to preempt protest (57 percent to 45 percent), and that “people who identified as black were more likely to think so than people who identified as white (66%, compared to 46%).”

    [RELATED: STUDY: Free speech, inclusivity are ‘conflicting interests’]

    “Overall, the results of the 2018 survey showed that even though most Americans can’t name all the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, they have strong opinions about the specific First Amendment issues that pop up in their lives,” FFI observes, noting that last year’s survey found that only 43 percent of Americans believed colleges should have the right to ban controversial speakers.

    The survey, which was conducted by telephone using both landlines and cell phone numbers, was weighted to proportionally represent the U.S. adult population, balanced by demographics such as age, race, sex, religion, and education level. 

    Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @emma_meshell





    Emma Meshell

    Emma Meshell

    Program Coordinator
    Emma Meshell is the Program Coordinator for Leadership Institute’s Campus Reform. She is responsible for the recruitment, training, and management of Campus Reform’s team of student journalists, a team that she was formerly a part of as an Oregon Campus Correspondent. Prior to joining Campus Reform, she worked for the Freedom Foundation in Portland, Oregon. Her work centered around planning and executing opt-out campaigns to government union members, including management of a statewide door-to-door canvassing team. Prior to this, she interned with the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, researching, and building educational programs tasked with teaching the principles of personal responsibility and individual liberty to underserved communities. With a heart for local politics, Emma has enjoyed working for and advising campaigns in her native Oregon, including several successful City Council and School Board races in her hometown. She graduates from Western Governors University in 2019 with a Bachelor’s of Science in Marketing.
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