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First Amendment study shows fear drives public perception

Posted: July 17, 2013 | Tags: First Amendment, Newseum

Photo by Maria Bryk, Newseum

Legal scholars talk about the study's findings that people are willing to give up some freedoms for increased security.

Widespread perception of fear, caused by events such as the Boston Marathon bombings earlier this year, is one of the major threats to the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment. This is one of the key findings of this year’s “State of the First Amendment” report, a study conducted annually by the nonprofit First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

The results did not come as a surprise. “When you see a 21-point jump in a single month in the people who would give up some of those freedoms in the hope of security, that’s an echo of what we saw when it went to 49 percent eight months after 9/11,” said Gene Policinski, senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. Thirty-four percent of survey participants said they thought the rights protected by the First Amendment went too far, which presents a dramatic increase compared to last year’s 13 percent. The study was conducted a month after the bombings happened.

Fellow panelist Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, pointed to another alarming figure in the study. “The other threat to the First Amendment is illiteracy — constitutional illiteracy,” Paulson said. The study showed that 36 percent of Americans could not name a First Amendment protection — which covers the freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the freedom of religion, the freedom to petition, and the freedom to assemble.

“We’re not building the kind of foundation that so many of us enjoyed, where we grew up and understand the Constitution. Somehow we have to fix that,” Paulson said.

Policinski agreed. “One of the things that worries me the most is that we are now getting a new generation of teachers who themselves haven’t been through an educational system which taught about the constitution,” he said.

First Amendment scholar Jeffrey Rosen said the results reinforced the importance of institutions like the First Amendment Center and their role as educators. “My new job now is to increase awareness for all the amendments for all citizens,” said Rosen, who is the president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, which offers visitors exhibitions, films and a platform for public discourse about the constitution.

Despite the threats to the First Amendment, the study shows that it is still the most popular amendment of all. The First Amendment Center has benefited from that in its work. "We have one advantage over the other nine in the Bill of Rights. And that is, the First Amendment is those freedoms by which you live your daily life," Policinski said. "One of the things that we've been able to do is to take that 'lifestyle' idea, the popular culture, [...] and suddenly people see the relationship between the First Amendment and how it affects their lives."

The panelists also talked about press shield laws, the reaction to the recent revelations about classified NSA surveillance programs, and the public’s perception of the news media and media bias. 




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