More than 4 in 10 Americans think the First Amendment protects them from being fired for what they say, and more than 3 in 10 think it applies to situations like A&E's now-revoked suspension of "Duck Dynasty" star Phil Robertson, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. But they're wrong.
In the new survey, 45 percent of Americans said the First Amendment does not allow people to be fired from a job for expressing their views, while only 36 percent said such firings are allowed under the Constitution. Twenty percent said they weren't sure.
Moreover, 35 percent think the First Amendment does not allow a television network to suspend an on-screen personality for expressing a politically incorrect point of view, while 43 percent said such a suspension is permitted under the Constitution. Another 22 percent said they weren't sure.
In fact, the amendment -- which starts with the phrase "Congress shall make no law" -- protects Americans only against the government's intrusion into free speech and does not apply to the acts of private employers. But that didn't stop politicians and others from weighing in after "Duck Commander" Phil Robertson was suspended by A&E in December for comments he made about homosexuality and pre-civil-rights-era race relations that many people found offensive.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) said that, even if he might find Robertson's opinions offensive, "this is a free country and everyone is entitled to express their views."
"In fact," Jindal continued, "I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) also weighed in, posting on Facebook that "Free speech is an endangered species. Those 'intolerants' hatin' and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us."
The high-profile conservative defenders of Robertson's right to offend others showed a welcome, and very American, belief in the importance of free speech. What they seemed to be missing was a basic understanding of what actual protections people have or have ever had in the private sector. (Perhaps Jindal is not familiar with the use of "morals clauses" in entertainment industry contracts, which allow a performer to be fired for behavior that may bring the network into "public disrepute.")
That confusion about constitutional rights isn't limited to Republicans, the new poll finds. Thirty-eight percent of Republicans, 38 percent of independents and 29 percent of Democrats said they believed the First Amendment applied in a similar situation. More generally, 50 percent of Republicans, 45 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of independents said they think the amendment shields people from being fired for things that they say.
The poll respondents were more confident about situations in which the First Amendment is, in fact, applicable. By a 72 percent to 14 percent margin, Americans correctly said that the First Amendment does not allow people to be arrested for expressing their views. By a 62 percent to 21 percent margin, they said the government is not allowed under the amendment to prevent certain points of view from being expressed on TV. (But take note: In practice, there are limits to even well-established speech rights.)
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted Jan. 10-11 among 1,000 U.S. adults using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance.