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Strong Majorities of Americans Feel the First Amendment Guarantees Freedom of - and from - Religion

Two-thirds believe freedom of speech extends to protection from loss of livelihood

NEW YORK, Feb. 26, 2014 /PRNewswire/ -- The United States Bill of Rights was a revolutionary concept at the time of its inception: a set of limits on the actions the new government could take in regard to the personal liberties of its citizens, and a collection of rights Thomas Jefferson saw as "what the people are entitled to against every government, and what no just government should refuse, or rest on inference." Even though the document is over two centuries old, the meanings, implications and the application of its articles to life today continues to be the subject of vigorous debate. But which rights do Americans believe to be guaranteed - and not guaranteed - by the amendments included in the document? What better place to start than at the top, with the First Amendment.


These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,236 adults surveyed online between January 15 and 20, 2014. This look at the First Amendment is the first in what will be an ongoing series in the coming months examining American attitudes towards the Bill of Rights, both collectively and at an amendment-by-amendment level. (Full results, including data tables, available here)

Religion is like a pair of shoes. Find one that fits for you, but don't make me wear your shoes. 
 George Carlin

Strong majorities of Americans believe the First Amendment provides freedom both of and from religion: 86% believe it guarantees the right to freely exercise the religion of one's choosing, while 76% believe it guarantees the right to be free from the influence of religion if one so chooses.

Roughly two-thirds believe it does guarantee separation between the government and both religious bodies (67%) and religious practices (64%), but does not guarantee the barring of religious practices by any individual within a school (69%).

  • While Democrats (74%) are more likely than either Republicans (66%) or Independents (64%) to feel the First Amendment guarantees a separation between the government and religious bodies, it is perhaps more important to recognize the fact that majorities of both parties as well as Independents do see it as a guarantee provided by the amendment.

Free speech is the cornerstone of every right we have.
Mark Twain

When asked to read the text of the First Amendment and then indicate whether or not it guarantees each of a list of individual rights and limitations, roughly eight in ten Americans recognize that the amendment guarantees the ability to speak freely without fear of government censorship or prosecution (79%). Despite some differences, majorities of Americans across the demographic and socioeconomic boards agree that this is a right the Founding Fathers intended us all to have.

A majority of Americans also believe the bill guarantees the ability to speak freely without fear of censorship or prosecution from private companies (62%), while majorities believe it does not guarantee the right to make damaging statements about fellow citizens (74%) or private companies (70%) without limitation.

The First Amendment says nothing about your getting paid to say anything. It just says you can say it. 
- Penn Jillette

However, Americans appear to hold some confusion as to just how far the free speech guarantee extends. Though the Bill of Rights is focused on limiting government infringement on liberties, two-thirds of Americans believe the First Amendment guarantees the abilities to speak freely without fear of impact on one's livelihood (67%). However, in some situations this outcome is in fact a very real possibility, as many television and radio personalities can attest.

One area where money and free speech can and often do collide is in the area of donations to political candidates, with a third of Americans (32%) believing the right to donate money, without limit, to politicians as a form of free speech is guaranteed by the first amendment. The truth is a bit more complicated, with donations to candidates much more limited than those made to parties and political committees.

The only security of all is in a free press.
Thomas Jefferson

Few Americans seem to contest the idea of a free press, with 84% each agreeing that freedom to publish, in general, and freedom to publish opinions are guaranteed by the First Amendment.

  • Echo Boomers (79% general, 78% opinions) are less likely than Baby Boomers (90% each) or Matures (87% general, 88% opinions) to feel these rights are guaranteed, though again the most important point is that strong majorities across all age groups affirm this.

All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions.
- George Bernard Shaw

Over our nation's history, social and policy changes have often been driven by means of protest and petition, and so it's unsurprising to see that vast majorities also recognize that the rights to assemble peacefully (85%) and to petition branches and agencies of the government for action (80%) are granted by the First Amendment.

To view the full findings, or to see other recent Harris Polls, please visit the Harris Poll News Room.

Want Harris Polls delivered direct to your inbox? Click here!

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between January 15 and 20, 2014 among 2,236 adults (aged 18 and over). Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #19, February 26, 2014
By Larry Shannon-Missal, Harris Poll Research Manager

About Nielsen & The Harris Poll
On February 3, 2014, Nielsen acquired Harris Interactive and The Harris Poll.  Nielsen Holdings N.V. (NYSE: NLSN) is a global information and measurement company with leading market positions in marketing and consumer information, television and other media measurement, online intelligence and mobile measurement. Nielsen has a presence in approximately 100 countries, with headquarters in New York, USA and Diemen, the Netherlands. For more information, visit

Press Contact:
Corporate Communications
The Harris Poll
[email protected]

SOURCE The Harris Poll

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