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37 Percent of Americans Can't Name First Amendment Rights

37 Percent of Americans Can't Name First Amendment Rights
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By Friday, 15 September 2017 10:31 AM Current | Bio | Archive

A recent survey found that 37 percent of Americans can’t name any of the specific rights guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[1]

Data like this is often used in a condescending way to denigrate the American people. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the group that conducted the survey, raised the alarm by saying that "protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are."[2] Jay Cost of the Weekly Standard wrote, "We have squandered the greatest civic legacy in the history of the world."[3]

However, the data itself tells a different story. The question asked by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania was this, "What are the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment?" Nearly half (48 percent) correctly named the freedom of speech. Smaller numbers correctly identified the freedom of religion, the freedom of the press, the right to assemble, and the right to petition the government.

A few incorrectly guessed the right to bear arms or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those are important parts of our civic heritage, but they’re not written in the First Amendment.

All this survey data tells us is that roughly a third of the people didn’t know certain rights were specifically mentioned in the First Amendment. But there is a huge difference between knowledge of which passage mentions which freedoms and knowing that we have certain rights. For example, just about every American knows we have freedom of speech even if only 48 percent know where it was written in our founding documents.

This distinction is especially important in the United States because our nation was founded on the belief that freedom of speech and other rights were not granted by the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. Instead, these were believed to be unalienable rights that existed before the country was formed and that no government could take away. The First Amendment merely put that pre-existing belief into written form.

In my recent book, "Politics Has Failed: America Will Not," I noted that America’s historic commitment to individual freedom has always run far deeper than mere words on parchment:

"Long before colonial politicians declared the nation's independence, men like Levi Preston had already made it a reality. On April 19, 1775, an 18-year-old Preston joined hundreds of his neighbors standing up to the British in what became known as the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Seven decades later, historian Mellen Chamberlain tracked down Preston to find out what led him to fight on that day. The historian assumed it might have been the Stamp Act or Tea Tax, but Preston said he never saw a stamp or drank any tea. 'The boys threw it all overboard.' 

"Trying a different approach, Chamberlain asked about the writing of 'Harrington, Sydney, and Locke about the eternal principles of Liberty.' Preston must have thought the young man daft: 'I never heard of those men.' He added, 'The only books we had were the Bible, the catechism, Watt's Psalms and Hymns, and the almanac.' At this point in the discussion, the young historian must have been a bit frustrated. So, he again asked why did a teenaged Levi Preston choose to fight? 'Young man,' Preston replied, 'what we meant in going for those Redcoats was this: we always had been free and we meant to be free always! They didn't mean that we should."

The same dynamic is taking place today. Thirty-seven percent (37 percent) of Americans may not be able to state where in the Constitution certain rights are documented. But that doesn’t mean everyday Americans are ignorant of their rights.

As I mention in the book, the unifying force in our nation is the American Creed. It’s a belief that we all have the right to live our own lives as we see fit so long as we respect the rights of others to do the same.

In a land where the culture leads and the politicians lag behind, these deeply embedded cultural foundations are the primary protection of our freedoms.

Each weekday, Scott Rasmussen’s Number of the Day explores interesting and newsworthy topics at the intersection of culture, politics, and technology. Columns published on Ballotpedia reflect the views of the author.

Scott Rasmussen is a Senior Fellow for the Study of Self-Governance at the King’s College in New York and an Editor-At-Large for Ballotpedia, the Encyclopedia of American Politics. His most recent book, "Politics Has Failed: America Will Not," was published by the Sutherland Institute in May.To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.


  1. Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, "2017 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey," accessed September 14, 2017
  2. Axios, "Many Americans can't name any First Amendment rights," September 12, 2017
  3. Twitter, "Jay Cost," September 12, 2017
  4. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.

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A few incorrectly guessed the right to bear arms or "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Those are important parts of our civic heritage, but they’re not written in the First Amendment.
happiness, liberty, life, pursuit
Friday, 15 September 2017 10:31 AM
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