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Culture Beat / July 27, 2018

Americans’ Love the First Amendment… Sometimes

The average citizen’s ignorance of protected rights under the First Amendment is inexcusably high.

A new report from the Freedom Forum Institute reveals seriously troubling results from a survey of more than 1,000 Americans. The surveyors found that only one respondent could name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. (A quick reminder, those freedoms are: freedom of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances.) While only 56% could identify freedom of speech as one of the rights, an astounding 40% of people questioned could not name a single one. Talk about a crisis of education in civic knowledge.

Given the above statistic, it’s hardly surprising that about one in four of the those surveyed believe that the First Amendment goes too far in protecting American’s free speech rights. But it gets worse. The report further noted, “When respondents were asked in which circumstances it is appropriate to retract invitations to controversial speakers at public universities, a majority agreed that a speaker whose remarks would incite violence or threaten public safety should have an invitation retracted (70%), with 18–34 year olds most likely to believe they should have the invitation retracted in this case (80%).”

Overall, 51% of respondents believed that it was appropriate to revoke a speaker’s invitiation “if the speaker’s remarks would provoke large-scale protests from students.” By implication then, these Americans essentially support the “heckler’s veto.” Investigative journalist Alex Morey notes, “When universities accede to the demands of students who would resort to violence to shut down speech, this disincentivizes students inclined to respond to unpopular speech with better ideas and instead encourages them to respond in the most unproductive and ineffective way possible — with violence.”

However, arguably the worst statistic the survey revealed was that the vast majority of respondents supported social media companies like Facebook and Twitter censoring “hate speech,” personal attacks, and false information. It’s true that these are private companies, not the government. But we think it’s high time to start teaching Americans what their constitutionally guaranteed rights are and to further explain what those rights actually entail.

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