If we had to choose a favorite, it would be hard to argue against the First 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."
It has so much packed into it, five liberties that share the singular ideal that the people's minds are their own. Americans may believe, say, print, discuss and ask for what they want, regardless of whether the government likes it. Only in the most narrowly circumscribed ways may the government interfere.
And if we had to choose just one of those five rights, we might go with a free press lest we lose our journalist cards, but free speech would be in the running.
We were heartened, then, to see that a plurality of Americans surveyed also recognize just how valuable free speech is. In the most recent annual survey by the First Amendment Center at the Newseum, nearly half of Americans (47 percent) named speech as their favorite freedom.
Nothing else even came close. Religion came in second (10 percent), followed by freedom of choice (7 percent) and the rights to vote and bear arms (5 percent each) You can read the full report online at firstamendmentcenter.org.
Not everyone loves the First Amendment, though. About one-third of Americans surveyed think it goes too far. That was almost double the rate of the previous year.
The survey did not probe why so many people believe the First Amendment is too broad, but it's not hard to speculate. Last year saw a bitter presidential campaign, political polarization has many people sick of hearing from the other side, the Internet makes it easier than ever for anyone to say the first asinine thing that comes to mind and government leakers reveal embarrassing national secrets.
The report itself speculates that the Boston Marathon bombing might have had something to do with it. The survey was conducted soon afterward, and a similar spike occurred after Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath of terrorism, Americans are more willing to temporarily compromise freedom in the name of security. Even more worrisome, the rate of disapproval of the First Amendment is greater among young people. If that trend holds, it does not bode well for the future.
When an idea challenges, it is a fool's errand to try to squelch it. The best counter to speech is more speech, a marketplace of ideas from which the best can emerge. As soon as government begins to pick and choose which speech, which religion, which meetings and which press are worthwhile, the game is lost.
Free speech is a cornerstone of a successful democracy, necessary for an informed electorate. The people must be able to talk about what their government does without fear of reprisals.
If Americans could not criticize elected officials who do bad things, if they could not praise those who do good things and if they could not freely discuss the issues of the day, government would be less accountable and public life far less vibrant.