There has been a lot of talk lately about whether we can agree to disagree.

It is disheartening that so many conversations devolve into deflection, personal attacks and, worse, hate speech.

We really have a hard time, as a society, saying what we mean. We are good at taking a position, but not as good at defending it. We take comfort in knowing there are piles of people out there who share our point of view, and are willing to shoulder the heavy lifting of debate and defense.

Every topic seems to divide us. And we are quick — too quick — to throw out our two cents. Yes, we have a right to do that, literally. But what are we adding to any conversation by reacting rather than processing and coming up with solutions? We need meaningful dialogue — not pithy (or pissy) social media posts masking as intelligent discourse.

A new report put out by the Freedom Forum Institute points to just how hard we are falling as a nation when it comes to simply understanding our constitutional rights covered under the First Amendment. In fact, suffice it to say we can’t protect it if we don’t know what we are trying to protect.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

There is a reason it is first. It is on those principles that all of the others are built.

The First Amendment does not include the right to vote or the right to bear arms (even though many Americans believe it does.) Most heartbreaking, perhaps, is that the 2019 State of the First Amendment Report indicates that 21% of participants (and there were 1,007) could not name any First Amendment freedoms. Not one.

Of course, 64% of respondents could identify freedom of speech; but only 29% could get freedom of religion; 22% got freedom of the press; 12% got right of assembly; and 4% got the right to petition.

Overall, only 1% of the participants could name all five freedoms.

“Since 1999, the Freedom Forum Institute has annually assessed whether Americans believe that the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

While many Americans don’t know the First Amendment, they want it. That’s clear, in black and white. Things get more interesting when you talk about the freedoms in the digital space.

“Greater attention has been placed recently on the practices of social media companies to filter content on their platforms. In 2018, major social media companies gave congressional testimony after several high-profile instances in which social media companies banned or suspended users for their posted content. As private companies, social media companies are not regulated by the First Amendment, although their policies vary in important ways, as the Freedom Forum Institute has noted.”

So the following prompt was added: “Social media companies violate users’ First Amendment rights when they ban users based on the content of their posts.”

A majority of participants (65%) agreed that social media companies violate users’ First Amendment rights when they ban social media accounts. There was a measurable partisan split, with a greater percentage of Republicans (71%) than Democrats (62%) agreeing with the statement. Surprisingly, participants who recalled three or more First Amendment freedoms were also more likely to agree (71%) with the statement than participants who recalled two or fewer freedoms (64%). The results suggest confusion about the application of the First Amendment protections on social media platforms.

Also added to the mix this year, the survey asked whether “public institutions should revoke invitations to guest speakers” in several different scenarios — many of them involving the #metoo movement.

Fifty-nine percent of participants agreed that public institutions should revoke an invitation to a guest speaker if the speaker is accused of sexual harassment. There was a small and statistically non-significant gender gap, with 56% of men and 61% of women agreeing that the invitation should be withdrawn. Interestingly, there was a greater disparity between participants 50 years old and over (50%) and under 50 years old (66%) than between male and female participants.

And, notably, most participants (77%) agreed that fake news and misinformation on the internet are serious threats to democracy. This high level of concern was consistent among the different demographic groups interviewed, no matter their age, gender, education or income.

It is reassuring to know Americans want the protections of the First Amendment. As a nation, we might want a primer on what that actually means.

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