You don’t need to look much farther than Founding Father Thomas Jefferson to get a taste for the polarity Americans feel about the media.
Back in the days of quill pens, in 1786 Jefferson wrote: “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” But two decades later, after being pilloried in the midst of his presidency by a highly partisan press, he added, “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
To Jefferson, the necessity of a free press was matched equally by his concern about its credibility.
Nearly 11 score later, Americans – and Florida voters, specifically – express this same tension. And not just about the media, but about all five of the rights and freedoms protected and guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
To better understand this dynamic, Sachs Media conducted a random sample survey of Florida voters in late January to measure their awareness, beliefs, and concerns regarding the First Amendment. Surprisingly, few respondents – barely over one-third (36%) – were able to identify all of the five rights secured by that crucial amendment – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition the government.
Each individual provision is known by larger segments of voters, but as a whole, the First Amendment is shorted in terms of full recognition of the totality of what it protects.
Freedom of speech is the most widely known, with more than 9 in 10 (91%) associating it with the First Amendment. Perhaps surprisingly, a wide gap exists before the next best known protections, freedom of religion at 61% and freedom of the press at 55%. Just half (50%) recognize that the First Amendment guarantees Americans the right to peaceably assemble in protest, and even fewer (46%) know that it gives them the right to petition the government to redress grievances.
Awareness levels don’t differ much among specific demographic groups – men, women, older Floridians, and younger Floridians alike have more or less equal understandings of what tops the list in our Bill of Rights.
But whether they know all of the various provisions of the First Amendment or not, Floridians are largely concerned about the health of each of these protections in today’s sharply divided political climate.
Specifically, more than 8 in 10 (81%) are concerned about freedoms of speech or government restrictions on what people can express, and the same percentage (81%) are concerned about the public’s ability to access government information, including records or meetings.
More than three-quarters of those surveyed voiced concerns about other fundamental First Amendment guarantees: 78% are concerned about freedom of the press or government control over journalism; 77% are worried about people’s right to petition the government or air grievances; and 76% are concerned about the right to peaceably assemble or gather in protest. Finally, two-thirds (66%) are concerned about freedom of religion or the government forcing or denying a person’s beliefs.
While these concerns are widely shared across voter groups, there are some relative differences by party. For example, a greater share of Republicans cite concerns about freedom of speech, religion, and access to records, while Democrats are more likely to cite concerns with the right to peaceably assemble. Both parties are equally concerned about freedom of the press, although their preferred sources of information may provide opposing views of the media landscape.
Members of both parties can readily cite their causes for skepticism when it comes to how those in power respond to dissent – as some take issue with censored material on social media or mainstream news outlets, while others lament limitations on how or where people can gather in protest. Whatever their cause, nearly everyone (94%) reports concern with the health of at least one portion of the First Amendment.
“It’s comforting that the findings in our survey illuminate such deep respect and even reverence for our nation’s First Amendment among all demographics of Floridians,” said veteran journalist and communicator Ron Sachs, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Sachs Media. “But the data also shows a serious knowledge gap – reflecting an upside opportunity for an ongoing nonpartisan statewide public education campaign about this priority set of principles in the nation’s governing blueprint.”
Perhaps the good news is this: You can’t be concerned about something unless you actually care about it. Perhaps because Democrats largely distrust Republicans and Republicans largely distrust Democrats, we may have found a dismal but important antidote to tyranny.
As dramatist Tennessee Williams, no stranger to controversy, wrote, “We have to distrust each other. It’s our only defense against betrayal.”
On this, President Jefferson may agree. “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it,” he wrote.
When it comes to the First Amendment – which came into being largely through Jefferson’s persuasion – Floridians are clear: The five rights and liberties enshrined in the First Amendment DO matter, and they cannot be taken for granted.
Full results are available here.