First Amendment Freedoms: As Urgent and Essential as Ever

If you want to know how vital the First Amendment is today, just take a look at some recent headlines:

Transgender student Gavin Grimm exercised his right to petition the Virginia school board that denied his use of a bathroom corresponding to his gender identity and won in the Supreme Court.

These are just a few of the news stories you may have found in the newspapers featured in the Freedom Forum’s Today’s Front Pages online exhibit and app. You’ll find it’s a rare day when some aspect of our First Amendment freedoms doesn’t make the news cycle in some of the 700 newspapers found there, often in the form of Americans across the country speaking, assembling or petitioning on behalf of causes in their communities.

Indeed, nearly 230 years after the First Amendment became democracy’s guiding document, those freedoms remain as urgent and essential as ever. And so does the work of the Freedom Forum.

The Freedom Forum has worked for the past 30 years to preserve democracy by fostering First Amendment freedoms for all.

That sounds like an impossibly tall order, but it is one we’ve been honored to fill.

In our first three decades, we’ve worked to increase understanding and appreciation of First Amendment freedoms, both in the United States and around the world. We’ve mentored and educated journalists, from South Dakota to South Africa, at all stages of their careers, with a particular focus on young journalists, diversity and inclusion.

Our international initiatives have reached more than 80 countries on six continents through programs and partnerships promoting press freedom and free expression. We built two Newseums, where more than 13 million people explored what those freedoms mean through historic artifacts and immersive storytelling. We even took the Newseum on the road in NewsCapade, a bus tour that reached people in all 50 states and Canada. Another 11 million people learned about the First Amendment through in-person and online classes and digital resources through NewseumEd.

As we celebrate our first 30 years, there’s no time to rest on our laurels. Freedom Forum surveys over the past 20 years have found most Americans can’t name the five freedoms of the First Amendment: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. The nation’s founders were intent on protecting these essential rights — that people have a right to their innermost beliefs, that they can speak their minds and criticize the powerful, publish their thoughts, assemble with others in protest and petition the government for change. We want a growing number of Americans to understand why the First Amendment matters to them in the 21st century.

In a groundbreaking survey, we recently asked more than 3,000 Americans across demographic, geographic and ideological lines how their values shape their attitudes about their fundamental rights. This Sept. 22, we’ll release the results in a special online event and reveal “The First Amendment: Where America Stands.

Today’s town criers may be on TikTok instead of street corners. Our global, web-connected world tests the boundaries of First Amendment freedoms, making debate over clashing rights, hate speech and online misinformation more urgent and complex. Our nation has become more diverse, more mobile — and more divided. The First Amendment embraces the diversity of American experiences and perspectives and protects all viewpoints while honoring our deep differences.

Jan Neuharth is the chair and chief executive officer of the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan 501(c)(3) foundation that advances First Amendment freedoms through various initiatives.