In this simmering season of division and distrust, there’s one thing that just about all of us agree on: We treasure the First Amendment.
Saturday is First Amendment Day, a day to celebrate the document that allows all Americans – without government interference – to practice a faith or not, speak freely, publish ideas, gather in support or protest, and petition the government for change. It marks the day in 1789 when Congress sent the amendments that became the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights to the states for approval.
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To salute the occasion, the Freedom Forum – an organization devoted to fostering First Amendment freedoms for all – will release a survey conducted in July and August 2020, when we asked more than 3,000 Americans how they feel about the First Amendment today. Our respondents came from every corner of the country and spanned age, gender, race and economic background – a true representation of our diverse nation.
Nearly all see 1st Amendment as vital
The big takeaway from the survey, titled “The First Amendment: Where America Stands”? Amid our disagreements on everything from politics to the pandemic, one value unites the vast majority of us: 94% of respondents – across generations and the political spectrum – view the First Amendment as “vital.”
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But we don’t agree on much else about it. Some findings surprised us – and we’ve been surveying Americans on this topic since 1997:
►More than a third of Americans would give up free speech to get rid of hate speech, but an almost equal number support unfettered free speech.
►69% say social media sites should be held responsible for allowing false or misleading information to be posted.
►People are equally divided (37% to 37%) over whether business owners should have to fulfill customer requests that violate their religious beliefs, while the remainder of respondents neither agree nor disagree.
►Nearly 60% say the news media should act as watchdogs on the powerful, but only 14% trust journalists.
►75% do not believe that government mandates due to COVID-19 infringe on the rights of assembly, speech and religion, but 1 in 4 people disagree.
►In a year when protests over racial injustice swept the nation, most people – 69% – have never participated in a protest, rally or march.
►73% of people have signed a petition, but only 14% could name it as one of the five First Amendment freedoms.
Ruhama Fernandez:I’m a Cuban dissident. We need America to stand with us against this communist regime.
Find out more about our survey at gerom.org
Understanding your rights is vital
The First Amendment connects us as Americans. It protects our right to express our deepest beliefs in word and action. Yet most Americans can’t name the five freedoms it guarantees – religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. In order to preserve and protect these fundamental rights for future generations, we all need to know, understand, value and defend these freedoms not just for ourselves, but also for each other. Even those with whom we disagree.
The 45 words of the First Amendment guarantee free expression, but the spirit of the First Amendment calls for more: To speak and be heard. To listen.
Because out of the marketplace of ideas more than 200 years ago came the American democracy. It does not equally serve us all. But the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment enable us to speak truth to power, shine a light on injustice and ignite – or oppose – change. It is through exercising our First Amendment freedoms we can ensure our democracy lives up to its highest ideals for all Americans.
Anay Remón García:Cubans didn’t demonstrate merely because of bread lines or inflation. We want freedom.
On Saturday, celebrate the First Amendment by doing something to promote the diversity of experiences and perspectives that define our democracy. Share your deepest beliefs with someone. Reach across a political divide or your family’s dinner table and debate current events. Support your local news outlet by subscribing. Join a new group on social media and explore perspectives that are different from yours. Sign a petition for a cause you support.
And toast the fact that we all share these First Amendment freedoms, not just when we exercise them for ourselves, but when we defend the rights of others to do the same.
Jan Neuharth is chair and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum. Follow her on Twitter: @JanNeuharth
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