Most Americans Don’t Understand the First Amendment, Expert Says

The First Amendment Center tracks common misconceptions and informs people of the truth.

The majority of Americans support the First Amendment – until they hear speech they don’t agree with, an expert on the amendment said.

“People feel these pain points” when they are face to face with speech they don’t like, the executive director of the First Amendment Center in Washington D.C., Lata Nott, said Friday to graduate journalism students at the Newseum.

Nott said the center, which studies the amendment and holds nonpartisan discussion forums, conducts an annual survey of how Americans feel and what they know, about the amendment.

She called the survey, now in its 20th year, important because it tracks how perceptions of the amendment have changed over the years in response to events.

This year’s survey, administered in May, showed that 39 percent of people couldn’t name any of the five parts of the amendment, Nott said. Most people know it protects freedom of speech, but the survey showed most don’t realize it protects freedom of the press, religion, assembly and the right to petition.

Only 2 percent of people surveyed this year could name them all, Nott said.

Americans understanding of the amendment, which the U.S. adopted Dec. 15, 1791, often depends on the speech that it protects, Nott said.

It is not a partisan issue either, Nott said, both conservatives and progressives dislike the amendment when it protects speech they don’t like.

Nott said the amendment protects all speech, and these negative attitudes toward the freedom of speech are “depressing.”

The center is like a “really aggressive Switzerland,” said Nott, who has been there since September. Nott said the center tries to neutrally inform Americans about the amendment through podcasts, online material distribution and educational workshops

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