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Legal Learning: 5 important rights in the First Amendment

James Manahan

Can you name the five basic rights protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution? Stop reading for a minute and see how many you can recall.

If you can remember all five, you are part of a very small group. A recent survey of more than 1,000 Americans found only one person who could name all five. Even more surprising and discouraging, 40 percent of those surveyed couldn't name any.

In the survey conducted by the Freedom Forum Institute, 56 percent recalled that freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment. It went downhill from there. Just 15 percent of respondents named freedom of religion; 13 percent named freedom of the press; 12 percent named freedom of peaceful assembly; and 2 percent named the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Surprisingly, 9 percent of those surveyed thought that the right to bear arms was guaranteed by the First Amendment (that's actually in the Second Amendment).

But I repeat — 40 percent of those surveyed couldn't think of a single freedom protected by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

Our Constitution was ratified in 1788 and George Washington was sworn in as our first President on April 30, 1789. In order to get the 13 colonies to approve the Constitution, the founding fathers promised that they would pass a Bill of Rights guaranteeing that the government would not infringe on basic freedoms. On Sept. 25, 1789, Congress approved 12 amendments, and 10 of those were approved by the states and became part of the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) in 1791.

The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, but Congress has often ignored that "guarantee." Just seven years after its adoption, the Sedition Act of 1798 was adopted even though it very clearly abridged the freedom of speech.

This law made it a crime to say or write anything "false, scandalous and malicious" against the government, Congress or the president, with intent to defame them, bring them into disrepute or excite popular hatreds against them.

First Amendment rights are fragile. It is easy in times of national danger to think that the five freedoms can be put on hold while we deal with this emergency or that one. And it's important to vote on Tuesday!

James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate. He handles family law, wills and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author and are not to be attributed to his employer. He can be reached at jimmanahan@gmail.com.