Americans may cherish their freedoms, yet many don’t know even what they are. In the State of the First Amendment survey, conducted by the Newseum Institute and USA Today, 39 percent of respondents couldn’t name a single one of the five freedoms at the core of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
“More needs to be done to explain how our foundational rights can be fully realized in today’s complex society,” according to Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum.
Explaining these freedoms is the first step for people to appreciate, support and defend those liberties. Only informed citizens can defend these freedoms that are at the very core of democracy. And this is the most complex question that comes from the survey: What can we collectivity do to form more knowledgeable citizens? It is a question that encompasses several areas: family, school, and media could all aim to better inform people about their rights.
And while media are paramount in shaping the national culture, they are not regarded as completely reliable. According to the study, 74% of people consider the media biased when reporting the news, but 71% still appreciate their role as political watchdog.
The survey also reports that 86% of Americans favor the freedom of speech – knowing or not that it is part of the First Amendment – over its limitation.
The study also tracked attitudes toward freedom of religion in the aftermath of the Orlando shooting. Despite the outburst of anti-Islam narrative, the number of people that believed that freedom of religion applies irrespectively of faith has increased. Only 22% of those surveyed put limitations based on faith to the applicability of the First Amendment. Just a few weeks before, it was 29%.
“There was a burst of anti-Islam rhetoric in the immediate aftermath of the shootings that was followed by public criticism of calls for increased surveillance of Muslims and religious profiling,” said Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute. “After that public debate, there was a noticeable shift in opinion in favor of the religious liberty protection for all faiths in this nation.”
Thus, the snapshot of America that emerges from the report is mixed. On one hand, there is a need for a collective effort to further enhance constitutional education. On the other hand, this is a country that mostly believes that freedoms should apply to everyone without discrimination, and is as a whole less prone to falling for antagonizing rhetoric.