First Amendment knowledge grows

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Here’s some good news.

The First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute announced the results of its annual State of the First Amendment survey, which discovered the public has generally become more knowledgeable about rights under the First Amendment during the past year.

You can read the entire report here

Seventy-one percent of respondents were able to correctly name at least one First Amendment right, nearly a 20 percent increase compared with the 2018 survey. The survey has been published since 1997 and reveals Americans’ changing attitudes toward the essential five freedoms of the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Most Americans are aware of religion, speech and press. But are less familiar with assembly and petition – two freedoms that guarantee their individual rights as citizens.

Perhaps Donald Trump’s fake news campaign focused more attention on one of the First Amendment’s freedoms…a free press.

Despite broader public awareness, many misconceptions surrounding the First Amendment remain. Sixteen percent of those surveyed said the right to bear arms was guaranteed by the First Amendment, up from 9 percent in 2018. (The Second Amendment addresses the right to bear arms.). Too-thirds (65 percent) agreed social media companies violate First Amendment rights when they ban users based on objectionable content they post.

The First Amendment guarantees your right to speak, not your right to a platform. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are businesses. The First Amendment does not require them to accept your posts. They don’t need a reason to block you, although it’s probably good business to adopt terms of service that appear to be fair.

To be clear, the First Amendment prohibits government censorship of speech but the government isn’t Twitter. Social media platforms are not obligated to be “fair.” Without evidence, Donald Trump has accused them of blocking conservative posts and favoring liberal posts. From a business standpoint, it’s in the companies’ best interest to serve up credible content to the full spectrum of readers, but they are not legally bound to do so.

Another concern is more people agreed the First Amendment went too far, rising to 29 percent from 23 percent in 2018. We need more work to explain how the freedoms of the First Amendment apply to daily life and how they define what it means to be an American.

More good news: most respondents (77 percent) agreed misinformation on the internet and the spread of actual fake news (not Trump’s description of fake news as any story he doesn’t like) is a serious threat to democracy, and most agreed it is important for our democracy that the news media act as a watchdog on government (72 percent).

This improved trust in journalism encourages champions of the press across the country.

Additionally, many support the First Amendment rights of student journalists as well as the larger media industry. Two-thirds (64 percent) of respondents agreed public school students do not need approval from school authorities to report on controversial issues in their school newspapers.

Also enlightening were reactions to questions surrounding religious freedom. Support for the First Amendment rights of religious minorities has increased by 25 percent in the past two years. Now 82 percent of those surveyed agree the freedom to worship extends to all religious groups, even those considered extreme or fringe.

The 2019 survey results showed continued efforts to educate the public about First Amendment freedoms are critical and that increased awareness can result in increased public support.

Author: Mike Knaak

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