Americans' Awareness of First Amendment Freedoms

Date Published: 
March 1, 2006

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the cornerstone of American freedoms. It is critical that Americans have a firm and greater understanding of our nation's hard-earned freedoms in order to preserve and protect them. The less Americans know about freedoms, the more they are likely to erode without our notice. The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum is committed to helping Americans increase their knowledge and understanding of our freedoms, especially those fundamental rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The five essential freedoms contained in the First Amendment are freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and to petition the government for redress of grievances. As the basis for our many freedoms, the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are something every American needs to take to heart, and should know by heart. The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum recently conducted a survey of a random national sample of 1,000 American adults to explore whether Americans know the contents of the First Amendment. In addition, the survey included a few questions about contemporary American culture to provide some perspective.

Highlights of Findings

Although a majority (70%) of Americans recall without prompting that freedom of speech is one of the rights contained in the First Amendment, recall of the other freedoms drops off very quickly from there.

  • Only one-fourth mentioned freedom of religion, and one in ten mentioned freedom of the press or freedom of assembly. Freedom to petition the government over grievances was mentioned by just 1 percent.
  • Although 72% were able to name at least one of these rights correctly, this fell to only 28% who could name two or more, only 8% who could name three or more, only 2 percent who could name four or five. Remarkably, only one person of the 1,000 interviewed was able to correctly name all five freedoms.
  • Given a list of freedoms Americans enjoy, most were able to recognize freedom of religion and freedom to criticize the government as First Amendment rights.
  • About one in ten incorrectly mentioned the right to bear arms as a First Amendment Freedom. In actuality, this right is protected by the Second Amendment.
  • A majority also incorrectly said the right to vote and the right to trial by jury were guaranteed by the First Amendment.
  • Other rights that more than one-third believes come from the First Amendment include right to own a gun, the right to an attorney, the right against self incrimination, the right of women to vote and the right to a public education.
  • About one in five say the right to own and raise pets and the right to drive a car are First Amendment rights as well.
  • Although unaided recall of the five First Amendment freedoms drops off quickly after freedom of speech, this is not the case for some aspects of popular culture. The TV cartoon show The Simpsons has five main characters that Americans remember much more readily. While only one in a thousand were able to name all five freedoms contained in the First Amendment, one out of five Americans can name all five of the Simpson characters.
  • More than half (52%) of Americans can name at least two characters from The Simpsons, while only about half that number (28%) can think of two or more First Amendment freedoms.
  • Americans are also more likely to remember which ad slogan belongs to which brand. When read five popular ad slogans, three-fourths (74%) of Americans were able to correctly recall the brands connected with at least two of these, compared to 28% who could name two or more freedoms. One-fourth of Americans could identify the brand of four or more of these slogans, compared to only 1% who could name at least four of the five freedoms.
  • Americans are also much more likely to be able to name the three judges on the popular TV program American Idol than First Amendment freedoms. Although almost half could name none, a majority (54%) could name at least one, 41% could name two, and one-fourth could name all three.

Obviously, First Amendment rights are not entertainment, and they are not as highly visible as some elements of popular culture. Americans often come face-to-face with First Amendment freedoms in one form or another every day - even though we may not recognize them as such. While the objectives of the McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum are to encourage Americans to understand these freedoms, debate their application and recognize their cost and value, knowing what they are is a prerequisite for this discussion.