Celebrate America’s hands-on lessons in freedom

I’ll admit it. For several years, I’ve found the 4th of July a little dispiriting.

Sure, the celebrations are always vibrant, with flashy fireworks celebrations and band-laden parades.

But the 4th also marks the annual release of the “State of the First Amendment” survey by the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute, and the results have grown disturbingly familiar over the years.

Each year prior to this one, we would ask respondents to name any of the freedoms of the First Amendment. Last year – and every year –a majority could only come up with freedom of speech. More than a third couldn’t name a single freedom. Just 17 percent knew that freedom of religion was guaranteed in the First Amendment and 11 percent knew that freedom of the press was included. Only 12 percent knew that the right of assembly was one of the freedoms and stunningly, just 2 percent mentioned the right to petition.

All of that suggests a constitutional illiteracy, but it turns out we may have been asking the wrong question. It turns out that this year’s survey has a silver lining.

Sure, the results do reflect our nation’s political polarization:

  • More than half of Americans prefer news from media outlets that reflects their political views.
  • More than 70 percent say freedom of the press doesn’t apply to “fake news”.
  • 32 percent say freedom of religion doesn’t apply to “extreme or fringe” groups.

But that same polarization also fuels participation in the marketplace of ideas. The survey asked about personal involvement in political activities and found:

  • Though very few Americans know that petition is part of the First Amendment, more than a third say they’ve signed a petition in the past year. And that doesn’t include calls or emails to legislators, many of whom say they’ve been swamped with constituent messages.
  • Only about 1 in 10 recognize assembly as a First Amendment right, but more than 16 percent say they’ve attended peaceful demonstrations in the past year. About 12 percent say they’ve engaged in boycotts.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, large numbers of Americans have taken to the streets, with some marchers decrying his policies and others showing their support for his goals. There’s nothing ideological about freedom of assembly. It’s an equal opportunity freedom.

And of course, freedom of speech and press are in full gear these days. Very few are complacent about the state of our nation.

Collectively we may not know much about the First Amendment’s five freedoms, but we sure know how to use them. And that’s something worth celebrating.

The First Five Podcast

The First Five launches with a discussion of the results of this year’s State of the First Amendment Survey.

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