Depending how the questions are phrased, surveys show that Americans are often skittish, even alarmed, by the extent of the freedoms guaranteed them under the Constitution and especially those in the First Amendment.
The First Amendment guarantees the freedoms of speech, press, religion and assembly and right to petition the government. It is fundamental to what it means to be an American.
A study done by the Freedom Forum in the aftermath of 9/11 found the country almost evenly split on whether the First Amendment "goes too far." Normally, two-thirds of the public supports that pillar of the Constitution, but you have to worry about that one-third who thinks, for example, that freedom of religion "goes too far."
Now the Knight Foundation has done a survey that suggests that ignorance of and indifference to the First Amendment may begin in high school.
Nearly three-fourths of the students surveyed either took the First Amendment for granted or had no opinion about it. This is worrisome because the Constitution is not chiseled in stone and protecting the freedoms of speech and press especially is a never-ending battle. The First Amendment is in constant danger from well-meaning people who try to lay down campus-speech codes or outlaw "hate" speech or ban the more outrageous forms of political expression like flag-burning.
Most frightening in the latest survey, barely half -- 51 percent -- believed newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government censorship. Students were a little more broadminded when it came to something they perhaps care about more; 70 percent believe musicians should be free to perform lyrics that others might find offensive.
Considering that they have grown up with computers, it is rather scary that half believe the government censors the Internet.
The Knight Foundation's solutions include better instruction and access to a first-rate student newspaper. But, alas, that institution seems to be fading, with 21 percent of high schools having no student media -- 40 percent having eliminated their student newspapers in the last five years.
The fastest way to an appreciation of the First Amendment is draconian but effective: Having to live in a country that doesn't have one.
Scripps Howard News Service