Thirty-Four Percent of Americans Think the First Amendment ‘Goes Too Far’

The results of a new survey released today by the Newseum Institute shows that roughly 34 percent of Americans think that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees, up from 13 percent in last year's survey. This is the largest single-year increase in the history of the State of the First Amendment national survey. The survey has been conducted since 1997 to determine public opinion about First Amendment rights and issues. The results were released today by First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson and Newseum Institute Chief Operating Officer Gene Policinski.

The survey also found that 47 percent of Americans think free speech is very important, while 10 percent said freedom of religion is the most important right, followed by 5 percent (each) who think the right to bear arms and the right to vote are important.

Approximately 80 percent (up 5 percent from the 2012 survey) said that the news media – which was once called the fifth estate of the republic – should be an independent watchdog over the government, while 46 percent believe that "the news media try to report the news without bias." Only 4 percent of those surveyed could name "petition" as one of the five freedoms in the First Amendment, and freedom of speech was named by more than half of the respondents (59 percent). Freedom of religion was named by 24 percent, while just 14 percent named freedom of the press and 11 percent named the right to assembly. Finally, 75 percent believe high school students should be able to exercise their First Amendment rights just as adults do, while 23 percent disagreed.

The takeaway for those who sponsored the survey is that this new data shows that Americans need to be educated more about the rights that are available to them and why they are so important.

Full survey results are available at and

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  1. 0
    David says:

    I really hope this wasn't a representative sample of the United States as a whole.  I seriously don't want to believe there are people who are so horribly spoiled rotten by how good they have it compared to the rest of human history that they can't even comprehend what it is they have.

  2. 0
    Neeneko says:

    Ironically one of the reasons the tenure system was put in to place was to help counter the 'amassing of government power', and to a significant degree it still does that.. though great expense has been put in to trashing it over the last few decades to the point that tenure as it actually happens and tenure as it is talked about in the public (and media) sphere bare almost no relation to each other.

    As for memorization vs other methods.  I knew of one teacher (HS level) who had a great way of handling these topics.  Instead of introducing a document or decision he would introduce the historical events and pieces that were going on right before it and then give the students various roles and motivations to play, then had them debate and see what they all did or came up with.  The results were often surprisingly in line with actual historical outcomes, incuding the compromises that went into them.

    Time consuming, but it gave them a better feel for why things turned out the way they did.

  3. 0
    Davvolun says:

    If they're going to do both of those things, then something else will have to be given up. Education is not exactly a zero-sum game, but the time and effort they spend memorizing will have to be taken from some other task. And, the important thing, is that rote memorization is the worst *positive* learning task; that is to say, you still get something out of it, but of all the learning tasks you could perform, it gives you the least benefit. When you're learning a new language, some aspect of memorization is necessary (you can't speak fluently without a basic vocabulary), but if all you do is memorize the words and rules of grammar, you will never speak fluently.

    Here's an example. Instead of having a question on a test be: "Name the 5 rights guaranteed by the First Amendment" a better question (I'm not saying the best question though, IANATeacher) would be "Choose two rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Now, in 150 words or less, explain which right you find more important and why." Of course, that question takes a little more effort, but it's just a small example off the top of my head. The important point is that it's possible that you can't pull, off the top of your head, all five rights guaranteed by the 1st, or the exact original 13 colonies, or whatever, but being able to recall and intelligently discuss them is what's  more important.

    Yes, if you go into work as a political consultant, or a politician, you should probably know, off the top of your head, all 13 colonies. But that's true of any career, you should be more well-versed in the topic of your career than the average lay-person. For the rest of us, a basic understanding with the ability to reason intelligently about the topic is vastly more important.

    I do think all of us should know certain mundane details, like the rights guaranteed by the Constitution. I don't think it's important that you know exactly what rights the Fifth Amendment guarantees you, but rather that you know about the rights themselves.

  4. 0
    E. Zachary Knight says:

    I agree that rote memorization is an ineffective method of learning. Often we forget such memorized things shortly after the need to recite them passes. I also agree with the method of study you propose. 

    However, government run schools are not about teaching children the necessary skills and knowledge they need to function as an adult. Anything taught that doesn't apply directly to a standardized test is often taught incompletely and inaccurately. 

    And again, governments are about amassing as much power as possible. That goal does not mesh well with instructing the rising generation that government should be of limited size and scope and that we have inherent rights protected by the Constitution from government overreach. 

    If the Constitution were properly taught in school, we would have fewer opinions like that stated by this poll. We would have more people outraged by NSA spying, the prosecution of Bradly Manning and more. 

    E. Zachary Knight
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  5. 0
    Left4Dead says:

    Why can't kids do BOTH of those things at the same time?  Train them to think critically for themselves and memorize important documents that form the basis of good law.  Then they have a real chance at becoming good citizens of this country.

    -- Left4Dead --

  6. 0
    Neeneko says:

    I think better then memorizing the final outcome, learning more about the debates and horse trading that went into it would help more.

    Have them act out the debates, put them on opposing sides, throw in all the 'well, of COURSE we do not mean XYZ! Do not worry!' promises that were thrown in.  Remind them of how bad things were state to state and how at the time you could still end up in jail for trying to preach for the wrong church in the wrong state.


  7. 0
    Davvolun says:

    That's a ridiculous statement of how the public school system, and education in general, works. I would be inclined to believe that some public school systems do require some or even deep knowledge of the Bill of Rights to pass, but school systems are not precisely standardized from state to state, or even city to city. "The Government would have too much to lose by teaching kids of their Constitutionally protected rights" is some real tin-foil hat thinking.

    But, the real reason memorizing the Bill of Rights will never be a requirement for passing civics or graduating is because memorization is completely useless as a learning tool. I would much rather students read essays or news stories on the impact of people throughout history being unable to exercise these rights so that, though they may not get the fine details precisely, they come out with a much richer understanding of why these rights are important. I would rather have my kids be able to explain to me why the freedom of speech is necessary in a free society than be able to quote me the third paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (although they certainly should have read the Declaration at some point–something I had to do when I was in school).

  8. 0
    Longjocks says:

    It'd be interesting to see how they define what "too far" is. My guess is that they're offended by a differing opinion or action. One that doesn't impact on their own rights, but something they just don't like.

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