March 1st, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

A Especially-Vivid Reminder of Americans' First Amendment Ignorance

To kick-off the newly opened McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum in downtown Chicago, the curators commissioned a telephone survey of 1,000 random Americans by the polling firm Synovate. Such surveys aren't new; this particular cause for outrage comes back around on the guitar every few years or so, whenever somebody feels like kicking in the money to run another survey in hopes of shaming the American people into caring more. But the findings in this report, "Americans' Awareness of First Amendment Freedoms," (PDF only, grrr) are especially vivid. So much so that I feel a powerful impulse to give up, go back to bed, pull the covers over my head, and stay there for good.
  • 52% of those surveyed could name all 5 members of the fictional Simpsons family. Only one person (0.1%) could name all 5 freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.

  • 11% of those surveyed correctly knew that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of the press. Contrast that with the 53% thought that the First Amendment guaranteed the right to vote and the 36% who thought that it guaranteed women the right to vote. A mind boggling 17% of those surveyed thought that the First Amendment guaranteed the right to drive an automobile and 21% thought that it guaranteed the right to own pets.
I stewed over this for a while before I was able to put it in perspective.

In order to graduate from high school as an American, in theory you have to have passed at least one class on the US constitution and system of government. However, those classes are taught to 15 or 16 year olds, who aren't exactly the clearest-thinking people on the planet. They're taught by teachers who are, themselves, not especially well trained in First Amendment law, history, and practice. They're taught from textbooks that have been scrubbed, via formal partisan veto by way of the California and Texas school book selection committees, of anything that might relate to an ongoing controversy, and via informal Parent/Teacher Association veto, of anything that might make a parent uncomfortable.

This leads to a sad but predictable "arc" of lifetime misunderstanding of constitutional freedoms. J. Random Teenager, chomping at the bit of adult supervision and eager to obtain what he mistakes for adults' higher level of freedom, hears a sloppy explanation of the First Amendment from a bored teacher who doesn't understand the subject very well herself. The only part of it that he picks up on is the words "Freedom of Speech," which is a meaningless slogan if you don't understand the history to date of the whole body of related law and court precedents. Armed only with this misunderstood slogan, he thinks that he has the Freedom to Speak anything, anywhere, under any circumstances, to anyone, without facing any negative consequences or being held accountable for his speech by anybody, anybody at all, whether government, employer, or anybody else. Within at most a few years, he bumps his nose against something that contradicts this mistaken notion. Rather than seek to clarify his understanding of what free speech law actually says and means, he concludes that he was lied to, that there is no freedom of speech except the right to say what everybody else wants you to say, which is no more accurate than his first mistaken concept of what the constitution says.

J. Random American gets very few opportunities to find out otherwise, considering that he hardly ever again even hears the text of the amendment, let alone any explanation of it. References to this information show up in any venue where an American might actually be reminded of the text and history of the First Amendment maybe, what, oh, once every five years? Less often? It's not really fair to compare how fresh that is in memory to the Simpsons, which is on the air right this second, 24 hours a day, somewhere in the world, and which airs at least 6 times a week in every city in America. After all, the same survey found out that 65% of those surveyed could identify the Energizer battery slogan, but then, how could they not? Your average American watches 4.5 hours of TV per day, and that commercial series has been running in heavy rotation for longer than some of you have been alive, so once again, we have daily rote repetition. Where does the Freedom Museum think that anybody in America except those of us who write about the subject, work in First Amendment law as a career field, or who do volunteer work at civil liberties organizations, hears the full spoken text of the First Amendment anywhere nearly as often?

There is one place where they might have heard these things often enough to have memorized them, if things were only slightly different. Of that 4.5 hours per day of television, for most people at least a half an hour of that every weeknight is TV news, at least 5 to 10 minutes of which is national news. Out of all of the things that happen in the USA every weekday, network and local news editors try to pick out the one to two stories that they think that their viewers want to hear about today, that they'd be cranky if they found out later hadn't been covered. And if you skim the collected headlines over at First Amendment Center News, you'll see that there's at least one First Amendment related headline every day. If any of those stories got prioritized evenly with the scandal du jour (which, lets face it, changes very little from day to day) or the War in Iraq (which is also pretty much the same news every day), then any one of those stories would have an obvious place in it to quickly recite the short text of the First Amendment. If they heard it as often as they heard the Federal Express advertising slogan, they might be as likely to know it. Each of those stories would also be an opportunity to explain, in one sentence summary in passing, what the unresolved or disputed First Amendment issue du jour was.

The only reason that this doesn't happen is that the American people believe, by and large, that their First Amendment freedoms don't change very much over time, so that anything First Amendment related probably isn't actually, you know, news. And they're not entirely wrong, although that's oddly enough not the standard by which they measure their celebrity gossip news stories' level of interest. But yeah, each of those one to five news stories per day that you might see on First Amendment Center News is just today's skirmish report from a 300 year old war where the actual battle lines, the consensus of what speech and publication and worship and assembly and petition are protected and aren't, moves very slowly. Those of us who do care, whether professionally or personally, follow those individual skirmish reports for the same reasons that a military officer studies actual skirmish reports: to learn what tactics are working and what aren't, and to maintain a cumulative running total, a feel, of how the actual war is going; we study First Amendment law history for the same reason that people in Officer Candidate School read Sun Tzu and study the Battle of Gettysburg. Seen from that perspective, it can be fascinating stuff. But that's not a perspective that the American people have been especially well equipped with.