Survey says: Americans ignorant of redress of grievances

By Corey Friedman

Just one in every 20 Americans knows why we have the right to speak at county commissioners’ meetings and write letters to our congressman.

An abysmal 4 percent of adults named the right to petition government for a redress of grievances as one of the five First Amendment freedoms, according to the 2012 State of the First Amendment survey. Just 13 percent of all respondents could name the freedom of assembly.

Sixty-five percent identified free speech as a First Amendment freedom, and 28 percent named religion. Knowledge of these core constitutional rights is confoundingly low, but awareness of speech and religion rights is the highest since the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University began conducting the annual nationwide survey in 1997.

Many if not most Americans know they can bring their complaints to the government — suggesting otherwise would be folly. But the survey results show that few can cite the source of that liberty, and that still is a cause for concern.

It’s difficult to effectively exercise your rights if you don’t understand them. And you can’t rely on the government to fully explain and faithfully interpret the passages that limit its power.

We’d like to see more awareness and understanding of the First Amendment’s fundamental freedoms. But for all the stormclouds, this year’s survey offered some sanguine silver linings.

Three-quarters of Americans believe the news media should act as an independent “watchdog” of government on the public’s behalf — even though most agree that the free press isn’t doing a bang-up job. Sixty-two percent of respondents said they disagree with the statement, “The news media try to report the news without bias.”

Nearly 60 percent of Americans said they’re against public schools having authority to discipline students who post controversial or offensive material online while off school grounds. That’s an encouraging result, but we’d like to see that figure grow in the coming years.

The overreach of school administrators who punish students for off-campus conduct is a disturbing trend that America should stop in its tracks. A principal’s authority beyond the schoolhouse gate should never trump a parent’s.

Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents say the government shouldn’t have the power to seize control of the Internet during an emergency. President Barack Obama’s executive order, Assignment of National Security and Emergency Preparedness Communications Functions, allows just such a state takeover of cyberspace. It’s a Big Brother-inspired blunder and a serious threat to online free speech that should immediately be rolled back.

“While Americans remain generally supportive of First Amendment freedoms, it’s clear that, as a nation, we need to re-energize our efforts to provide education about those rights, starting with understanding what they are,” First Amendment Center Senior Vice President Gene Policinski said in a news release. “We need to prepare our fellow citizens for the tasks of defending and applying those five freedoms in the 21st century.”

We couldn’t agree more.

[Ed. Note: This post originally appeared in The Wilson Times.]

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