‘One Tenth of One Percent’ Know Their Rights
The Constitution lays out the rights that citizens of the United States of America have. Studies show that only one tenth of one percent of the population actually knows what those rights entail. (Photo provided by Pixabay.com).
Citizens of the United States are aware of the first amendment, though the context of the amendment may be interpreted differently among people.
Like other groups, college students are a specific demographic that have their own perspective on the meaning of the amendment.
“I interpret it similarly to how most Americans interpret it — that Americans have the rights to speech that’s free from the pressures of government doctrine, that the press and organized institutions should be free. Also, the government should not prevent religious practice that is not otherwise harmful,” Junior and Biomedical Engineering major, Austin Doughty said.
According to American Government professor Loren Gatch at the University of Central Oklahoma, students are, for the most part, very knowledgeable on their simple rights.
“They have a pretty good basic grasp of what those rights are. I do think that they tend to confuse civil liberties — what’s in the Bill of Rights — with civil rights, which flow from the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause. [However], I understand how it can be difficult to keep the two ideas separate,” Gatch said.
However, according to Director of the Oklahoma Collegiate Media Association and Oklahoma State University Associate Professor, Joey Senat, college students and most citizens do not really grasp the concept of the first Bill of Right.
“I think probably most Americans don’t even know whats in the first amendment. One tenth of one percent of Americans can list all five of the rights,” Senat said.
Senat said that, specifically in Oklahoma, it is important for people to be aware of their rights because the state’s own constitution has special protection of speech and press.
“I think the important principle that the first amendment protects is the right to [an] opinion — not that everything you say goes unpunished, but that the government can’t control the way you think and communicate your thoughts with others,” Doughty said.
However, according to Gatch, students often seem to misunderstand the true context of the element of freedom of speech.
“When it comes to the first amendment, I find that college students seem to think it provides more protection for free speech than it actually does. The first amendment protects you against the government trying to shut you up. It doesn’t prevent your employer from firing you for saying something,” Gatch said.
There are other students, such as junior and Family Life Education major Addison Elledge, who also views the information contrary to the common interpretation.
“It’s kind of contradictory because we can say what we want. However, you have to pay attention to the context you say it in and know when you should or should not say something,” Elledge said.
First amendment rights cannot be tainted for anyone; however, politics may be effective in meeting certain rights pertaining to a specific group.
According to Senat, knowledge of the first amendment rights will be beneficial in political influence.
“I try to teach my students when it comes to your rights, people will do to you what you let them to do to you,” Senat said.
There are issues that students have to face, but they do not seem to participate in both national and local elections as older citizens do.
“Students’ involvement in elections has been pretty stable over the last 30 years or so. They tend to not be involved as other voters. Younger people tend not to vote as much as do older people,” Gatch said.
According to Gatch, with the exception of the 2008 Obama election, the voter turnout for people ages 18-29 for other elections has ranged 30-40 percent.
“Young people tend not to vote as much as do older people because they are not as settled as older voters with jobs and families and homes and all the rest. When you are older and have those responsibilities, you begin to see the connections between politics and one’s personal life,” Gatch said.
Although, according to American Democracy Project student worker Rachelle Thibodeau, young people can have an effect on the election if they vote.
“I think [voting] can have a major impact on the election. I know that our state is mostly republican, but that’s changed in the past, and you see more democrats. New movements happen all the time, and if enough people decide that’s how it’s going to be, then we can change things,” Thibodeau said.
In its entirety, the Constitution serves as a document to support the concept of democracy. According to Gatch, for this ideology to stay consistent, citizens need to be educated about their rights and their politics.
“Democracy works only when people believe in it. It’s not some kind of machine that operates independently of its citizens. When we forget that, we tend to leave political decisions in the hands of people who may not have our best interests at heart,” Gatch said.