Public Support for First Amendment Freedoms Makes a Comeback

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According to this year's annual State of the First Amendment survey, conducted by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with American Journalism Review magazine, although deeply shaken by the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001, Americans' support for their First Amendment freedoms has bounced back to pre-9/11 levels. The survey, conducted by the Center for Survey Research & Analysis at the University of Connecticut, includes 1,000 respondents contacted by telephone between May 6 and June 6, 2004.

Gene Policinski, acting director of the First Amendment Center, told BTW that he is heartened to find that the trend is back toward support for First Amendment freedoms and that a "significant majority of Americans continue to support a free and open society." But about three in 10 Americans surveyed agreed with the statement, "The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees," while 65 percent of those surveyed disagreed. In response to the same question posed in the 2002 survey, Americans were split evenly, 49 percent to 49 percent. Although the numbers are improving, "still," Policinski said, "having three of 10 Americans say they have too much freedom is a disturbing figure."

Americans' knowledge of the First Amendment is scanty at best: According to Policinski, a number of respondents mistakenly included the right to bear arms, but most people were unable to identify any of the five freedoms specified in the First Amendment, other than freedom of speech. A relatively large percentage, 58 percent, were able to name freedom of speech. Only 17 percent named the freedom to establish and practice one's religion; 15 percent named freedom of the press; 10 percent named the right of the people to peaceably assemble; and a mere one percent recalled that we are granted the freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Respondents were informed of the five freedoms mentioned in the First Amendment before completing any other questions.

Half of those surveyed said that they believed that Americans have too little access to information about the federal government's efforts to combat terrorism, up from 40 percent in 2002. More than half (53 percent) opposed a proposed constitutional amendment banning flag burning.

According to Policinski, Americans' support for First Amendment freedom is mitigated by the specific area or circumstance. Many Americans would restrict speech that might offend racial or religious groups and would restrict music that might offend anyone, he told BTW. "About four in 10 Americans, very similar to past years, said that the press had too much freedom. Americans are ambivalent about their support for freedom of the press -- for example, 58 percent said that current government regulation of broadcast television regarding references to sexual activity, in general, is about right, 16 percent said there is too much, 21 percent said there is too little. This indicates that nearly six of 10 of those surveyed, despite the uproar after the Janet Jackson-Super Bowl episode, felt that enough restriction is placed on television and radio with regard to sexually related content.

"But more specifically, 49 percent would extend current government authority beyond the existing 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. timeframe to include late-night and overnight programs. And 54 percent would support subjecting cable television, now exempt from FCC standards applied to broadcasters, to the same regulations as broadcasters during the 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. time period, and 45 percent are in favor of applying those regulations to cable programming around the clock."

But most Americans (over 80 percent) feel that parents have the main responsibility to keep children from seeing inappropriate material on television, radio, movies, or printed material. Content providers, movie producers, theater owners, and publishers, were in second place, followed by government, at a distant third.

Only 28 percent of those surveyed rated American's education system as doing an "excellent" or "good" job of teaching students about First Amendment freedoms; 72 percent disagreed that a high school student should be allowed to wear a T-shirt with a message or picture that might be offensive to others.

"The idea of a free and vigorous press in this country is still a very strong concept," Policinski said. "Despite all the fabrications and a media credibility crisis, people have a tremendous faith in a free press. Even under a very real threat of terrorism, Americans still want to know what their government is doing."

Policinski concluded his commentary on the 2004 survey, posted on the First Amendment Center Web site, with: "What Thomas Jefferson called 'the marketplace of ideas,' where America would debate, discuss, and decide issues of democracy, is alive and well and vigorous … with the discussion being prompted by a bit of halftime help from Ms. Jackson and her 'wardrobe malfunction.'"

To view the survey with results and commentary, visit --Nomi Schwartz