Laugh or Cry: New survey shows a third of Americans think First Amendment protections go too far

Twenty-nine percent could not name one protection

Should I laugh or should I cry? It’s not just the title of a 1981 song by Abba – it’s how you sometimes feel when something is either so absurd or so maddening or so something that you’re just not sure how to react. We here at DecodeDC think politics and the actions of those who play in the political arena are filled with laugh or cry moments. We hope you do to. 

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Americans have failed their 2014 civics test: 29 percent of them can’t name any of the five freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution’s First Amendment

Perhaps even more surprising: 38 percent of Americans think the amendment guarantees “go too far.”

A survey conducted by the Newseum’s First Amendment Center showed people are most familiar with freedom of speech: 68 percent were able to name that one. Only 1 percent could name the freedom to petition.

The Newseum started conducting the “State of the First Amendment” survey in 1997. This year, the center surveyed 1,006 adults nationwide over the phone in May. The survey’s error rate is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Does it really matter that 29 percent of Americans got an F on their exams? Actually, yes, said Newseum Institute’s Chief Operating Officer Gene Policinski.

“Being a citizen requires that you have an essential knowledge of how the government works and what these rights are, particularly the First Amendment, because it’s sort of the blue-collar freedom,” Policinski said. “It’s in play every day for most Americans.”

Every year, the center asks respondents if first amendment protections go too far; the 'too-far' crowd has increased by 4 percentage points since 2013. Perhaps that’s because many Americans associate the amendment’s protections with aspects of culture they find offensive – hateful protest signs, anyone? 

Historically, people are more willing to give up freedoms in time of war or a direct attack. In the survey following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the number of people who said the First Amendment gave too much freedom spiked to 49 percent. Could this, too, be a harbinger of bad news for Americans?

“There’s a bit of a warning here that, once again, we might be willing as a society to give a sort of snap judgment to take away a lot of our liberties,” Poicinski said. “I worry every time that happens. It’s a real roll of the dice as to whether we’re getting them all back, and certainly a lot of people suffer in the period between the suspension of those rights and the time when they’re fully restored.”

So we ask you:

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