Acton Institute Powerblog

Five fundamental First Amendment freedoms in five minutes

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Thirty-three percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

That’s a startling finding in the 2015 State of the First Amendment Survey, a project sponsored by the Newseum Institute. Since the question was first asked in 2000, the percentage of citizens who can’t name a single right protected by First Amendment has ranged from 27 to 40 percent.

Many of us might be tempted to shake our head in despair at the ignorance of our fellow citizens. After all, we can probably name several of the rights, particular freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But how many of us can name and explain all five fundamental freedoms protected by the first amendment in the Bill of Rights?

To get everyone up to par, here is a five-minute exercise on the First Amendment.

First, let’s start by reading the actual text of the amendment:

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

Second, take a moment to memorize the five freedoms (pay particular attention to #4, the one most people fail to remember):

  1. Freedom of religion
  1. Freedom of speech
  1. Freedom of the press
  1. Right to petition
  1. Right to assembly

Third, develop a simple summary statement for each freedom. Keep in mind that any general statement made about the Constitution will leave out qualifications, nuances, and exceptions. But it will help you to remember the general point of the Amendment’s protections.

Here are examples you can use:

  1. Freedom of religion: Prohibits the government from establishing religions and protects religiously motivated behavior and belief of citizens.
  1. Freedom of speech: With certain exceptions, such as slander and defamation, this clause prohibits every level of government, from local to federal, from limiting the speech and expression of citizens.
  1. Freedom of the press: With certain exceptions, this clause prohibits the government from restricting the communication of speakers and writers, whether or not they are members of the institutional press, and largely regardless of the medium in which they communicate.
  1. Right to Petition: Guarantees that citizens can communicate with the government and elected leaders through petitions.
  1. Right to assembly: Protects the rights of citizens to join together to engage in peaceful protests and picketing, and to choose who can be members of their private groups.

If you have more than five minutes to spare, I recommend spending some time reading these four brief essays from The Heritage Guide to the Constitution:

Establishment of Religion

Free Exercise of Religion

Freedom of Speech and of the Press

Freedom of Assembly and Petition

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).