Newspaper column: Too many willing to forgo First Amendment rights

Here is proof positive that ignorance is hazardous to freedom.

The Freedom Forum’s 2018 First Amendment survey, conducted in May and June, asked 1,009 Americans to name the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Only one person could name all five. One out of more than 1,000.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of the survey was when knowledge of the First Amendment was compared to a willingness to have the government censor social media online. Fully 63 percent of those who could name not a single First Amendment right agreed the government should censor speech, while 87 percent of those who could name four freedoms disagreed.

The more rights one could name, the more those people balked at government censorship. The curve of ignorance runs counter to the curve of freedom.

Knowledge is power and ignorance is hazardous.

Even more scary is the fact that ignorance is rampant. Fully 76 percent of those surveyed could name none or only one First Amendment right — meaning that if such a censorship scheme were put to a vote it just might win.

As for political party affiliation, 54 percent of Democrats agreed with government censorship compared with 47 percent of Republicans.

For the record, the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We’ve been writing about this annual survey with considerable angst for two decades and things have gone downhill since. In 1997, the first year of the survey, 2 percent of those questioned could name all five rights.

Somewhat ironically, considering the considerable willingness to renege on it, the one First Amendment right a simple majority, 56 percent, could name was freedom of speech. Only 15 percent could recall freedom of religion. A mere 13 percent could think of freedom of the press, while right of assembly garnered only 12 percent and right of petition a paltry 2 percent. Fully 9 percent thought the Second Amendment right to bear arms was in the First.

Another disturbing finding in the survey is the willingness of Americans to silence someone merely because someone might be offended. When asked whether public universities should be able to retract invitations to controversial speakers if their remarks would offend some groups or even individuals, 42 percent agreed. If the appearance might provoke protests, 51 percent would withdraw the invitation. And if it might incite violence, 70 would cancel — the hooligan’s veto.

“It’s a little disquieting that 4 in 10 believe that public universities should be able to cancel a speaker if he or she might offend ‘individuals.’ In these polarized times, it’s difficult to conceive of anyone speaking on any topic without offending someone,” commented Ken Paulson, president of the Freedom Forum Institute’s First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Media and Entertainment at Middle Tennessee State University.

“That finding — along with majority support for cancelling speakers if a protest is likely — suggests there is significant public support for keeping controversial ideas off college campuses,” Paulson continues. “This begs the question: If a public institution dedicated to the sharing of knowledge and ideas is the wrong place for controversial thoughts, what is the appropriate venue?”

On a more positive note, 74 percent of survey respondents agreed that it is important that the news media act as a watchdog on the government, up from only 68 percent in 2017.

David L. Hudson, Jr. — author, co-author or co-editor of more than 40 books, including “First Amendment: Freedom of Speech” — noted that politicians have long extolled and excoriated the role of the press.

Though President Obama praised “a tough and vibrant media,” President Trump has called some members of the press “enemies of the people” and purveyors of “fake news.”

“The most encouraging part of the 2018 State of the First Amendment survey is the public’s embrace of the ideal of the media serving as the watchdog of a free society,” Hudson writes. “The American public recognizes the essential importance of a vibrant and free press to serve the interests of the public as a check against government.”

But for how long?

A version of this column appeared this week in many of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel and the Lincoln County Record — and the Elko Daily Free Press.

2 comments on “Newspaper column: Too many willing to forgo First Amendment rights

  1. Steve says:

    Independents (non partisans) make up about 40% of the electorate. With only 2 mentions, this poll doesn’t go into this political group much at all. Being a larger group than either major party, it would be very interesting to see what these people think and understand about the 1st amendment.
    Also, as daily (at the ready) knowledge, details of even so common a concept as the first amendment in the Bill of Rights really wouldn’t be on the tip of everyone’s tongues.
    Polls like these should look for the feelings and basic understandings rather than the actual wording.
    The fact many believe the government should censor speech remains troubling to say the least. But we do a lot to make that impression the norm when we read and hear the FCC won’t “let” us say that on TV. Broadcasters self censor and always have. But they all lay blame for this censorship at the feet of the FCC. The FCC has no initiative powers to fine or censor broadcasts, they can only respond to complaints from the public.

    Incidentally, this is why the FCC as a regulator of ISP’s was flawed from the start. FTC has those powers, cable and phone companies really liked the weakness of an FCC as oversight to their business models and practices.

  2. Rincon says:

    The survey is ridiculous. Can you tell me which laws of thermodynamics are first, second, and third? You know them all, but how important is it for you to know which is which? (actually, the third one is a little tricky) The same applies to the First Amendment. A far more suitable question would be to ask if we have those freedoms, true or false, along with some red herring questions to prevent lucky guessing.
    I suspect there are few who don’t know the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, the press, etc., so why do we need to know which Amendment guarantees what?

    As for Democrats and Republicans, it’s obvious that Republicans have a deep distrust of government, so is it any surprise that they are against government intervention regarding speech or any other part of life?

    The graph showing a willingness to accept censoring of social media sites is also (probably unintentionally) deceptive. According to this article, 76% of the respondents were in the first two groups, leaving an average of only 8% for each of the other three groups. One would expect that those feeling most strongly about totally free speech would have encountered the First Amendment more frequently in recent years than the group with fewer concerns; therefore, they would be more likely to remember which Amendment is which. This creates the hazard of cause and effect reversal. Correlation does not show cause.


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