Ignorance is Threatening the First Amendment

I’ve spent the first two days of the new academic semester bombarding my mass communication students with my usual “here’s why the First Amendment is important and why you should know it” speech. I believe it’s important to talk about the First Amendment at the very beginning because everything we’re going to do for the rest of the semester is built on that foundation.

But it’s not something that only journalists and writers need to know. The First Amendment encapsulates some of our country’s core philosophies: freedom of religion; freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom to peaceably assemble; and freedom to petition our government when change is necessary.

All Americans should know the First Amendment. Sadly, we’re not even close.

The First Amendment Center publishes an annual survey called the State of the First Amendment. The 2012 version explores how Americans feel about a variety of issues, such as campaign spending by corporations and who should control the Internet.

However, I want to focus on a few statistics that really have me worried (no hyperbole, I’m actually concerned about this).

The survey shows 65% of Americans know that freedom of speech is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Only 28% know that the First Amendment also guarantees freedom of religion.

How many Americans know that freedom of the press and freedom to assemble are guaranteed by the First Amendment? A startling 13% for each one.

But the worst results concern the guarantee to petition our government. A mere 4% know that is one of our First Amendment freedoms.

This ignorance about some of America’s most basic freedoms, and how these freedoms are guaranteed, astounds me. Not understanding the First Amendment brings with it a host of problems.

We see Americans who increasingly favor placing limits on the press, all the while not realizing that such endeavors actually place restrictions on themselves as citizens. We see less tolerance of other faiths and religions. We see greater deference to politicians and the government. We allow law enforcement authorities more power than they actually have a right to use.

Perhaps most concerning — and this is something I tell my students — is that when we, as Americans, are ignorant of our freedoms, it is so much easier for those freedoms to be denied to us. How can we complain about losing civil liberties when we don’t even know they’re being taking away? It happens.

Do yourself, and our country, a favor by memorizing and understanding the First Amendment. It’s crucial to our future.

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