By Gene Policinski
— Americans once again don't run up big positive numbers in an annual First Amendment Center survey when it comes to being able to name all five freedoms in the opening 45 words of the Bill of Rights.
But once reminded of "religion, speech, press, assembly and petition," they do have some strong opinions about how those freedoms ought to work.
The annual State of the First Amendment national survey was released recently. For all of the results from this and past years, see www.firstamendmentcenter.org.
The 2012 survey shows that although just 4 percent of us can name all five freedoms, and only "speech" is named by more than half of respondents, we're pretty protective of our rights. We support videotaping police, think it's OK to use copyrighted material just for fun, and oppose giving the government too much power over the Internet, even in a national emergency.
Just 4 percent of the 1,006 adults sampled in this year's survey — conducted in June for the First Amendment Center — could name "petition," and just 13 percent could name either "press" or "assembly." There were some slightly encouraging results: 28 percent identified "religion" and 65 percent cited "speech." Though not exactly jump-for-joy figures, both were the highest for those freedoms since the survey began in 1997.
But once past that opening question, participants were reminded of all five freedoms — and generally a majority took a protective stance when it came to "their" freedoms.
Just 13 percent said the First Amendment "goes too far in the rights it guarantees," the lowest figure ever on that question. Still, that means about one in eight of our fellow citizens would cut back on some part of the First Amendment — even though in much of the world, people are willing to risk lives and liberty to get even a portion of the rights that we have enjoyed since 1791.
Some states — most notably, Illinois — have laws that limit or even criminalize the act of taking video or photographs of police activities in public. But the public overwhelmingly endorses the idea of holding authorities accountable through digital imagery, with 85 percent saying such activities should be allowed.
A majority — 57 percent — opposes allowing public schools to discipline students who use personal computers at home to post material that authorities say is offensive.
And though 59 percent of respondents are OK with the government being able to prosecute those who illegally distribute copyrighted music and movies online, they draw a distinction on what's "illegal" or not: 46 percent say using copyrighted material without paying a fee is fine as long as no money is being made. If there's a profit motive, 64 percent say a fee should be paid.
About two-thirds of respondents said the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong in a 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which removed federal campaign spending limits on corporations and unions. The Court said it was protecting political free speech — the most protected kind of speech — for those groups. But by 65 percent to 30 percent, those surveyed opposed the idea of such wide-open spending.
Even in the event of a national emergency, it would seem, we want our Facebook and Twitter — and all the rest of the World Wide Web: 59 percent disagreed with giving the government the power to take emergency control of the Internet and limit access to social media.
But at least for now, such power is in place. Last week, President Obama signed an executive order, the "Assignment of National Security and Emergency Preparedness Communications Functions," that authorizes federal officials to take control over telecommunications and the Web during natural disasters and national-security emergencies.
For those aiming to roll back that order, consider that history says we may well be only one crisis away from broad public support for such federal control. In 2002, about eight months after the 9/11 terror attacks, the State of the First Amendment survey found that 49 percent said the amendment went "too far" in its freedoms.
The larger meaning in that 10-year-old result is chilling — but also a call to action, to be better prepared and more engaged in society's ongoing discussion about how our core freedoms are applied in the 21st century.
Such efforts start with a very simple exercise: memorizing what those freedoms are.
All together, now: RELIGION, SPEECH, PRESS, ASSEMBLY, PETITION.
Give it a try right now. Feel "free" to go on from there.
Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.