America’s favorite freedom
What is America’s favorite freedom? It’s freedom of speech by a wide margin, according to the annual State of the First Amendment survey.
About 47% of those polled in the First Amendment Center survey said freedom of speech is the most important right, almost five times the number citing second-choice freedom of religion, named by 10%.
Next came freedom of choice (7%), the right to bear arms (5%), the right to vote (5%) the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (3%) and freedom of the press (1%).
The result may not be all that surprising; after all, freedom of speech is the best known of our First Amendment rights.
But it’s also a reassuring affirmation of how important speaking your mind is in a democracy.
This was the 17th annual survey on First Amendment rights, but the first time we’ve asked broadly about all rights.
Some would clearly differ on America’s paramount freedom.
At a time when limits on gun ownership are being widely debated, many would argue that being armed is the single most important defense against potential government tyranny.
Calling the right to bear arms “America’s first freedom,” National Rifle Association spokesman Charlton Heston famously said, “There can be no free speech, no freedom of the press, no freedom to protest, no freedom to worship your god, no freedom to speak your mind, no freedom from fear, no freedom for your children and theirs, for anybody, anywhere without the Second Amendment right to fight for it.”
Others point to the right to vote as the most important liberty, and it is certainly the lifeblood of a democracy. Still, in our last presidential election, just 58% of voting-age Americans cast a ballot.
Others would see our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure – and by extension, our right to privacy – as most critical.
The rights to a fair trial and protection against self-incrimination didn’t show up in the top results of our survey, probably because most Americans see themselves as law-abiding. But there’s no underestimating how those checks on
government power help ensure justice for all.
Members of the news media may take comfort in the fact that 1% of Americans say freedom of the press is the single most important freedom. You can argue that the watchdog role of a free press is critical to keeping government in check and our rights intact.
I came across a textbook from 1961 not long ago that devotes considerable space to a lesser-known liberty: the freedom of enterprise. That’s essentially the right to make a buck. It doesn’t get much more American than that.
My own sense is that the plurality of those polled in the survey got it right. I respect the right to bear arms, the right of privacy and the guarantee of due process, but I also believe that the very best check against government misconduct is
the right of all Americans to raise their voices, demanding accountability by those in power and insisting on liberty and justice.
Still, it’s important to recognize that our core freedoms, regardless of their relative popularity, complement and reinforce one another. Unless we daily reaffirm our right to America’s core liberties and speak out against government
encroachment upon any of them, our collective freedom is at risk. “United we stand” is not just a motto.
Ken Paulson is the president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University.