(OT?)State of the First Amendment: A survey of public attitudes (very long)

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I ran across the following article today and I thought it was very timely with all the talk of censorship recently on this forum. Food for thought, IMO. :-)


Jim Morris


State of the First Amendment: A survey of public attitudes


By Paul McMasters
First Amendment ombudsman


Most Americans celebrate the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Yet they are not entirely comfortable with those freedoms. They are constantly re-evaluating their commitment to First Amendment rights and values and re-ordering their priorities, asking themselves whether life would be more civil, more orderly, less threatening if the excesses of expression were somehow subdued. That clear sense of unease permeates this second State of the First Amendment survey conducted by The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center and the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. Americans appreciate, understand and endorse First Amendment principles, but become wary and occasionally even hostile when it comes to the practices.

Indeed, some of the findings in this survey arrive as a jolt to the constitutional conscience.

More than half of the respondents believe the press has too much freedom.

Half believe the Constitution should be amended to override the First Amendment's protection for flag burning as political protest.

Nearly one-third believe the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

Further, when responses in this survey are compared to the first State of the First Amendment survey conducted in 1997, a series of downward shifts in negative attitudes toward First Amendment freedoms becomes apparent.

These findings call into question the durability of the First Amendment compact between the government and the citizenry. For more than two centuries, the First Amendment has represented a promise Americans made to themselves, resolving to endure even noxious speech in order to preserve that compact. They have invested heavily in the proposition that it is better to be offended than to be silenced. This survey, however, reveals at best an inconstant commitment to that promise and to that proposition.

The news in this survey was especially bad for the press. When asked whether they thought the press had too much freedom, 53% of the survey's respondents said yes. That represents an increase of 15 points from the 38% who gave that response in the 1997 survey. [Question 4.] The bad news keeps coming. By notable majorities, Americans said newspapers should not be allowed to publish freely without government approval, that the news media should not be allowed to endorse or criticize political candidates, that it should not be able to use hidden cameras for newsgathering, and that it should not be able to publish government secrets.

Generally, survey respondents were more supportive of freedom of speech  at least in principle  than of the press. For instance, the percentage of those who believe we have too little freedom of speech went from 18% in the 1997 survey to 26% in 1999. [Q. 5] And those who agree that Internet speech should enjoy the same protection as printed speech went up from 56% to 64%. [Q. 40]

In fact, freedom of speech transcends the First Amendment as one of the most cherished of all constitutional rights. When respondents in the current survey were asked what they felt were the most important freedoms, the most frequent response was freedom of speech. Exactly half of the respondents volunteered that answer, a rate unchanged from the previous State of the First Amendment survey. [Q. 1]

Most frequently cited after speech was freedom of religion, with 18% saying that it was an important right. The Second Amendment right to bear arms received 14%, up from 9% in 1997. Freedom of the press and the right to vote had the same number of responses, each with 6%. Freedom of assembly was mentioned by 4% of the respondents. The First Amendment right to petition government for a redress of grievances was mentioned by only 2% of the respondents, behind the right to a fair trial and the right to privacy, each of which received 3%.

Significantly, even though First Amendment freedoms quickly came to mind when Americans were asked about important liberties, not one of the five freedoms was recognized by a majority of respondents as a specific right contained in the amendment. When asked whether they could name any of the specific rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, 44% listed speech. Religion was cited by 13%, press by 12%, assembly by 8% and petition by 2%. [Q2]

Despite their high regard for the idea of free speech, many Americans have serious concerns about certain kinds of speech. That said, they generally express more support for freedom of speech than for freedom of the press. The disparity may be attributable to a perception that freedom of the press belongs to the press while freedom of speech is perceived as a right belonging to individuals. If indeed individuals view speech as a very personal freedom, that may explain why some are inconsistent about extending it to others, especially those they dislike or with whom they disagree.

About the survey
A number of studies have shown that education and income are good predictors of support for freedom of expression. That seems to be the case in this survey, also. In addition to education and income, though, there were other characteristics of respondents that seemed to be present most often among those supporting First Amendment freedoms. They also tended to be white, male, politically active, liberal or moderate, not religiously active, and young. In addition to the personal characteristics, support for First Amendment freedoms also depended on the type of expression, the medium of expression, and who the speaker was. Obviously, not all of these indicators were present in all instances.

As for education about the First Amendment, just over half of the respondents in this survey recall having a class on the First Amendment in grade school, high school, or college. [Q. 8] In the 1997 survey, only 4% rated their education about the First Amendment "excellent"; 63% said it was poor or "only fair."

It would be unwise to form hard conclusions from the findings in this survey or the differences in responses between the 1997 and 1999 surveys. Two surveys over two years do not establish trends. With error margins of plus or minus 3 over-all and 4 in the 30% to 70% range, responses might differ by 6 to 8 points and still not be significant statistically. Even so, taking note of flagging support and sizable shifts in attitudes, whether positive or negative, seems prudent.

As for how much support is sufficient, some would say that the First Amendment is quite secure as long as there is at least a bare majority support. Others would say that without much more substantial public support, especially for the controversial aspects of expression, the First Amendment is in trouble, given the nature of the pressures and panics confronting and challenging Americans today.

Those who follow such things know that the First Amendment is under incredible assault on a daily basis, whether from adverse court decisions, proposed laws, scholarly studies or citizen initiatives. Taken together with a survey of attitudes such as this, the evidence is substantial that the State of the First Amendment is not good. Further, we must be mindful that where attitudes go, action is seldom far behind. That action inevitably is in the form of further restrictions on First Amendment freedoms, whether through public opprobrium, lawsuits, court rulings, or new laws.

To the extent these finding inform the public discourse swirling about these matters, we are compelled to pay them heed.

Speech: It all depends
Although those who think we have too much freedom of speech increased in this survey from 10 to 12%, those who think we have too little went from 18 to 26%. Six in 10 Americans think we've got it about right. [Q. 5] When it comes to specifics, however, support for free speech careens from one type of speech to another, depending on whether it is political, religious, artistic, racist, sexual, or commercial. Attitudes also vary substantially within one type of speech, depending on the medium of expression.

While a majority of respondents, 56%, said that musicians should be able to sing songs with lyrics that some might find offensive [Q. 16], they were not so permissive with other types of offensive expression. For example, 57% said that the display of art in public that some might find offensive should not be allowed. [Q. 21] An even larger majority, 78%, would not allow the use of words in public that racial groups might find offensive. [Q. 20]

Not surprisingly, this survey confirms the findings in the previous one that large numbers of Americans think that speech about sex should be restricted in some situations. An interesting aspect of those attitudes toward sexual speech is that Americans feel that the more accessible the medium, the less permissible sexually explicit content should be. [Q. 17, 41-44] For example, when asked whether different media should be allowed to use sexually explicit material, survey respondents were much more willing to allow sexually explicit material in rental videotapes than on the Internet. Here are the various media measured and the percentages of those who strongly or mildly agreed they should be able to handle sexually explicit material:

An emotionally charged issue for most Americans is the burning or defacing of the American flag. The Supreme Court has ruled twice that the First Amendment protects flag burning as symbolic speech. But the vast majority (80%) say the flag should not be burned. [Q. 18] Despite their revulsion for flag desecration, however, Americans are evenly divided when it comes to amending the Constitution to prohibit it. When asked whether the Constitution should be amended, 51% said it should, and 48% said it should not. [Q. 24] However, when asked a follow-up question on whether they would support an amendment knowing it would be first time the Bill of Rights was amended, of the 51% in favor of the amendment, 8% changed their minds and said no. [Q.25] These responses are little changed from the 1997 survey.

Americans seem particularly strict about what they will allow on television, apparently considering it such a presence in their lives that programming must be held to a different standard than expression in other media. This feeling is so strong that significant numbers are prepared to accept the federal government's help in determining what they see on television. The implementation in 1997 of the TV program rating system  to be combined with v-chip technology in new televisions starting this summer  may explain an increasing acceptance of the government's involvement in helping parents guide the viewing choices of their children. In the 1997 survey, respondents were asked whether government has a role to play in developing a system to rate television programs; 44% said it did. In the current survey, 57% agreed when asked if the federal government should or should not be involved, either directory or indirectly, in requiring the ratings of entertainment television programs. [Q. 45] Even though most approve of this government role, there is some question as to whether they consider it regulation. When asked directly whether the government should regulate what appears on television, 53% either strongly or mildly disagreed. [Q. 38]

Support for Internet speech freedom increased from the 1997 survey to the current one. Those who mildly or strongly agree that Internet speech should enjoy the same protection as printed speech went up from 56% to 64%. [Q. 40] That increase possibly could be explained by a growing familiarity with the new technology as well as several court decisions extending full protection to Internet speech. Americans remain wary, though. Only 24% thought that sexually explicit material should be allowed on the Internet. [Q. 17] A majority of 58% said that public libraries should block access to certain Internet sites that might offend some people. [Q. 39] By the same majority, 58% said that the government should have a role in developing a rating system for Internet content. [Q. 47]

There is substantial public support for the general notion of advertising of products considered harmful, but support for commercial speech, too, seems to be medium-specific. For example, 71% agreed with the statement that companies should be allowed to advertise tobacco [Q. 9], and 63% agreed that companies should be allowed to advertise liquor and alcohol products. [Q. 13] When asked whether such advertising should be allowed on billboards, however, the responses were not quite as supportive: 63% for tobacco [Q. 11] and 60% for liquor [Q. 12]. That support dropped further when respondents were asked if companies should be allowed to advertise these products on television, 51% for tobacco [Q. 10] and 53% for liquor. [Q. 14]

Interestingly, most Americans believe that within a particular type of communication there should be no disparity between the rights of tabloid or sensationalist media compared to mainstream media. Thus, 71% say The Star and The National Enquirer tabloid newspapers should have the same freedom to publish as The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. [Q. 48] The same percentage believes that Playboy and Hustler magazines should have the same publishing freedom as Time and Newsweek. [Q. 49] And 60% say that the Jerry Springer and Jenny Jones TV shows should have the same freedom as ABC News to air what they wish. [Q. 50]

Press: It's in deep trouble
Two of every three Americans believe that news organizations should be allowed to report or publish what they think is appropriate. [Q. 26] But that endorsement of the idea of a free press loses some of its force in the context of wobbly support for specific press activities.

In the 1997 survey, 80% said that newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval of a story; that figure dropped to 65% in the current survey. [Q. 27] In the previous survey, 38% said the press had too much freedom; that figure grew to 53% in the current survey. [Q. 4] In 1997, 85% said the press should be able to keep sources confidential; that figure fell to 79%. [Q. 28] In 1997, 69% said the press should be able to endorse or criticize political candidates; that is 63% now.[Q. 30] Those who believe journalists should not be able to use hidden cameras went from 65% to 72%. [Q. 34] And those supporting the reporting of government secrets dropped from 61% to 48%. [Q. 31]

There's more. Nearly six in 10 Americans (59%) think the ratings system now in use for entertainment programming on television should be extended to TV news. [Q. 46] A majority agrees that government should be allowed to regulate the activities of celebrity photographers known as "paparazzi." [Q. 55] Even student journalists suffer in the fallout. Support for high school newspapers being able to print controversial material went from 45% in 1997 to 37% in the current poll. [Q. 33]

These findings indicate that the news media is in deep trouble with the American public. In a variety of studies, surveys, focus groups and other ways, Americans are saying that they are disenchanted with the press. They say it is arrogant, inaccurate, superficial, sensational, biased and bent. Worse, they apparently believe that the press is a part of the problem, rather than a part of the solution. In a study conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, 32% said they thought the media were declining in influence, compared to 17% in 1985. The number of those saying the media protected democracy dropped from 54% in 1985 to 45%. Conversely, 38% said that the media hurt democracy; only 23% said that in 1985. [Presstime, June 1999, p. 26]

The reasons for the news media's decline in public esteem no doubt are varied and complex. The saturation coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair certainly focused the public's dissatisfaction with the press, but doesn't account for all of it. The proliferation of news outlets, including 24-hour radio and cable channels, ratchets up the perception of saturation, especially on big stories, and conflates punditry with actual reporting in the minds of many. It also increases the competition among media, leading to a certain amount of speculation, rumor and incremental reporting. Another possible factor is the fact that there is a general decline in public satisfaction with most major institutions in our society.

There is evidence in this survey that the public appreciates the vital functions that the press can perform in a democracy. For example, 67% said that courtroom trials should be televised; that is up from 51% in the 1997 survey. [Q. 29] An even larger number, 73%, said they think proceedings of the Supreme Court should be televised, although Justice David Souter once told a House subcommittee, "The day you see a camera coming into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body." [Q. 35] These findings are consistent with an American Bar Association poll released early this year that found that 61% of the people wanted to know more about the justice system. [The News Media & The Law, Spring, 1999, p. 30] The success of C-SPAN in televising congressional proceedings may have contributed to these findings, also. Or perhaps memories of the so-called "media circus" surrounding the O.J. Simpson trials are fading.

The results of questions about the press and privacy are intriguing. Six in 10 say journalists should not be allowed to investigate the private lives of public figures. [Q. 36] But in a different question, 48% believe the press should be allowed to publish factual information that may be embarrassing or sensitive regarding a public official's private life. [Q. 51] When asked the same question about celebrities, such as actors, the response was similar: 44% believe the press should be allowed to publish factual information that may be embarrassing or sensitive. [Q. 52] However, the public is more protective of private citizens. Only 37% agreed that the press should be allowed to publish embarrassing or sensitive information about them. [Q. 53]

Religion: A call for school prayer
When asked about rights they considered most important, a total of 18% of respondents mentioned religion. [Q. 1] Of that total, 13% responded with "freedom to practice religion" and 5% with "freedom not to practice religion." It should be noted that on some surveys, when respondents are given a list of freedoms as opposed to an open-ended question, the response rate of respondents who list religion is higher.

Of significance in this survey is the fact that more than one in four (26%) respondents said that Americans had too little religious freedom; only 8% said there was too much. [Q. 6]

A clear majority of the respondents disagreed with Supreme Court rulings that say that prayer in public schools must be initiated by students, not teachers and administrators. When asked whether teachers or other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayers in school, 65% said they should. That figure was 57% in the 1997 survey. [Q. 54]

The passion and conviction of most Americans about religion in public life reflected in this survey and others is no doubt a significant factor in efforts in Congress to pass a religious liberties amendment to the Constitution, federal and state legislative proposals to permit the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and other initiatives aimed at elevating the role of religion in our society.

In support of protest
The First Amendment freedoms of peaceful assembly and petitioning government for a redress of grievances usually do not command the time and attention devoted to issues involving religion, speech and the press. But Americans seem to understand that protests, demonstrations, rallies, marches and boycotts deserve constitutional protection. When asked whether a group should be allowed to hold a rally for a cause or issue that may be offensive to others, 62% agreed, although that is a 10-point drop from the 1997 survey. [Q.37]

That majority held up when asked whether pro-abortion or anti-abortion groups wanted to hold a protest or demonstration in their communities. Two-thirds said they should be able to. [Q. 22] But when asked if militia groups, white supremacists, skinheads or Nazis should be allowed to protest in their communities, 52% said they should not. [Q. 23]

As for one aspect of the freedom of assembly and association, court rulings have not been conclusive on whether teen curfews are a violation of the rights of young people. A sizable majority of Americans apparently have made up their minds, however: 78% said curfews do not violate young peoples' rights. [Q. 7]

An adjustment in priorities
Americans are not averse to weighing their First Amendment rights against other rights and desires from time to time. This survey indicates that may be happening now. It does not indicate whether this process is part of a trend, a cycle, or a re-evaluation of Americans' commitment to First Amendment traditions and principles. At the least, a substantial number, often a majority, of the respondents in this survey seem to be saying that curbs on First Amendment freedoms must be part of the mix in the search for answers to the problems that plague them. It is clear that there are some types of expression in some situations that most people just can't abide. It is also clear that there is a desire for civility and security so deep that significant numbers of people would consider trading some freedom for them.

This apparent willingness by some Americans to consider restrictions on expression offers a glimpse into the American psyche's majoritarian/authoritarian streak. That is the tendency of some to believe that speech not approved of by the majority does not qualify for full First Amendment protection. That raises the question of whether government acting on behalf of the majority can restrict and punish some speech. To the extent that thinking is discernible in these findings, the issue becomes not a matter of where we draw the line on certain kinds of speech, but who gets to draw that line.

Overall, negative attitudes in this survey about some First Amendment freedoms provoke some questions:

  • Do our rights depend more on constitutional tradition or the climate of opinion at the moment?

  • Are we moving toward a time when significant numbers Americans believe that certain kinds of speech must be put to a vote and those on the losing side must submit their First Amendment franchise to the will of the majority?

  • Are we experiencing a loss of faith in the ability of our government and social institutions to withstand offensive, even insidious, speech?

  • If we lack the will to protect speech on the fringe, how secure is acceptable speech, and how do we measure its value if it cannot be challenged?

There may be something else at work in these findings, too. It may well be that Americans are reexamining their attitudes toward some forms of expression because modes of communication have changed so much. That change provokes another set of questions:

  • Has technology made the communicative transaction so impersonal and diffuse that information itself is of less value?

  • Has knowledge devolved into data, therefore a commodity, therefore requiring less protection?

  • Is it possible in this environment that speech, the basic unit of communication, knowledge, and ideas, has become so detached from the speaker that it no longer has the value or impact it had before?

Certainly, there are a variety of reasons behind efforts to restrict speech: the instinct of individuals to censor others in order to validate their own thinking, the inclination of groups to silence others in order to elevate their own agenda, the predisposition of legislators to regulate speech in order to appear to be doing something about intractable problems, and the tendency of individuals and groups whose speech is targeted to be unorganized, unpopular and without political power.

To their credit, Americans have for the most part been able to resist such forces. Rather than turn to laws and regulation, they have more often resorted to more speech and more tolerance when confronted with offensive or unsettling speech.

Surveys such as this  with both heartening and troubling findings  are of primary value as a reminder of how important it is to have the First Amendment as a check on our natural impulse to censor and silence. Were it not there to protect offensive speech and controversial press practices, we might have a society that is calmer, safer, more civil. But it also would be less free.


Original document can be found at http://www.freedomforum.org/first/sofa/1999/analysis.asp

-- Jim Morris (prism@bevcomm.net), July 02, 1999


Jim: --- You were a full two days ahead of us. Congratulations!! Don't you know we are all very lazy, and you heading did say "very long".

-- thinkIcan (thinkIcan@make.it), July 04, 1999.

thinkican wrote:

Don't you know we are all very lazy, and your heading did say "very long".

I'll keep that in mind for any other posts I make that may be long. ;-)

BTW, I got this info from Free-Market.net's daily updates by email.

For any who may be interested, you can sign up here: Intellectual Matchmaker


-- Jim Morris (prism@bevcomm.net), July 04, 1999.

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