...while most citizens cherish their constitutionally protected freedoms, they know little about them. First Paradox: We Cherish the Unknown

A solid majority of Americans generally believe that individual rights protected by the First Amendment are "essential," but don’t ask those same citizens to identify where these "First Freedoms" are protected in the U.S. Constitution. Those are the findings revealed in a survey sponsored by the Freedom Forum and the American Journalism Review conducted between June 12 and July 5, 2002.

The survey shines a bright light on a consistent problem in American public life: while most citizens cherish their constitutionally protected freedoms, they know little about them. Thus, while an overwhelming 83 percent said that "the right to practice the religion of your choice" is "essential," only 18 percent could identify freedom of religion as one of the five rights protected by the First Amendment.

The public knows even less about the other "First Freedoms," with the exception of freedom of speech, which a majority correctly identified as enumerated in the First Amendment. Only 14 percent knew the First Amendment protects freedom of the press, even fewer, 10 percent, identified the right to peacefully assemble as safeguarded, and only two percent placed the right to petition government within the First Amendment’s protections

In fact, when asked what the First Amendment guarantees, more respondents identified freedoms not appearing in the Amendment’s forty-five word text than those who correctly identified at least one of the "First Freedoms." Given these results, perhaps the surveyors were pleased that more than a third of those surveyed, 35 percent, honestly admitted that they did not know what rights the First Amendment guaranteed.

None of these results should come as a surprise. A full 63 percent of those surveyed said the American educational system does only a "fair" or "poor" job of teaching students about First Amendment freedoms. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that the survey reaffirmed the First Amendment is truly first in the hearts, if not the minds, of American citizens. Three quarters of those surveyed said that "the right to speak freely about whatever you want" is "essential"; nearly that many, 68 percent, thought "the right to be informed by a free press" is "essential"; while more than 60 percent found "the right to assemble, march, protest or petition the government" is "essential."

Moreover, Americans are equally clear in their resolve when it comes to specific situations. Majorities did not flinch from protecting unpopular opinions, speech offensive to religious groups and explicit lyrics. More than half of Americans believe that newspapers should be able to publish without government approval and legitimately criticize the military. Even in post-September 11 America, 66 percent said that "Muslims should be allowed to hold a rally for a cause or issue even if it may be offensive to others in the community."

Thus, the fundamental message gleaned from the survey can be summed up simply by calling it the "First Paradox": we cherish constitutional rights we know little about.

This paradox also explains the most disturbing result from the survey – namely, that, in the abstract, nearly half of those surveyed, 49 percent, believe the "First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees." This result may, however, be meaningless given the public’s lack of deep knowledge and understanding of the First Amendment and its protections.

Given specifics, Americans will choose freedom over the alternative, as the survey amply demonstrates when respondents were asked about specific scenarios. But absent that ever-important factual context, citizens are unwilling to grant carte blanche rights in the abstract.

For these reasons, the survey exposes both our First Amendment’s vulnerability and its salvation. The public’s lack of factual knowledge about our "First Freedoms" threatens their very vitality as more and more know less and less. We cannot protect our freedoms of religion, speech and press and rights to peacefully assemble and petition the government in the theoretical abstract because the public both deserves and demands the right to know their contours.

Thus, the time has long since come to educate the public about its "First Freedoms." They want such an education. They said so.

September 5, 2002
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