Too Free?

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By Ken Paulson

In a First Amendment Center/American Journalism Review survey, nearly half of those responding said they think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. And about the same number said the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism. Full survey results are available at

Fear can short-circuit freedom.

From Abraham Lincoln's suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War to the internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II to the McCarthyism of the 1950s, our nation sometimes has lost sight of its commitment to freedom. Fear does that.

Little wonder, then, that security concerns and civil liberties have been both discussed and debated since the terrorist attacks of September 11. Is our society too free for its own good? Can we be free and safe? Are we willing to trade some personal freedoms for greater personal security? And how do we feel about the extensive rights contained in the First Amendment?

At the First Amendment Center, we conduct an annual survey of Americans' attitudes toward the First Amendment. This year, we joined with AJR to take a closer look at how the nation sees the First Amendment after the terrorist attacks, particularly when it comes to the role of a free press and access to public information.

Among the key findings:

  • For the first time in our polling, almost half of those surveyed said they think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. About 49 percent said it gives us too much freedom, up from 39 percent last year and 22 percent in the year 2000.
  • The least popular First Amendment right is freedom of the press, with 42 percent saying the press in America has too much freedom, roughly the same level as last year.

In the past, the results have been fairly consistent, if a bit disquieting. Each year, a majority of Americans have said they would restrict public remarks that might offend people of other faiths or races. About half of those surveyed have said they would restrict the public display of potentially offensive art. Almost four Americans in 10 have told us they would limit the public performance of music that might offend others.

During the five-year period in which we've conducted the survey with the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, we've seen willingness by many to exchange a little liberty for less interpersonal conflict. There's been growing support to limit expression when it insults others, the codification of political correctness. It sometimes appears that the land of the free is now the home of the easily offended.

But now the stakes have risen. In the wake of September 11, Americans are afraid of more than just being offended. The results of our 2002 survey suggest that many Americans view these fundamental freedoms as possible obstacles in the war on terrorism.

That's not to suggest a monolithic response to these core First Amendment values. In truth, Americans are of multiple minds about the 45 words drafted by James Madison. While a majority of respondents say they respect the First Amendment, a significant percentage seems inclined to rewrite it:

  • More than 40 percent of those polled said newspapers should not be allowed to freely criticize the U.S. military's strategy and performance.
  • Roughly half of those surveyed said the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information about the war on terrorism.
  • More than four in 10 said they would limit the academic freedom of professors and bar criticism of government military policy.
  • About half of those surveyed said government should be able to monitor religious groups in the interest of national security, even if that means infringing upon religious freedom.
  • More than four in 10 said the government should have greater power to monitor the activities of Muslims living in the United States than it does other religious groups.

Clearly, the terrorist attacks have taken a toll. Principles that sound good in the abstract are a little less appealing when your greatest fear is getting on an airplane.

It's not entirely surprising that many Americans have second thoughts about the First Amendment, particularly during a time of crisis. After all, it was designed to protect minority viewpoints and faiths. That can be difficult to remember when there's an overwhelming public call for unity. Some have little patience with dissent.

Still, there are signs that Americans do appreciate the fruits of First Amendment freedoms, particularly access to information. At a time of great national unease, we all want to know more about the threats we face. Information is the best antidote for anxiety.

About 40 percent of those surveyed said they have too little access to information about the government's war on terrorism, compared with just 16 percent who believe there's too much. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed believe there's too little access to government records, compared with just eight percent who believe there's too much.

While many Americans believe that we have too much freedom under the First Amendment and that the nation's news media have too many privileges, they understand and appreciate the value of news and information.

The goal for all who support First Amendment freedoms -- particularly those who work for a free press -- should be to demonstrate how the unfettered flow of ideas enriches our lives and bolsters our collective security. Information gives us insight and the power to make reasoned decisions at a difficult time.

It's ironic that many Americans have doubts about these fundamental freedoms in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

When President Bush addressed the nation last September 20, he cautioned us that "freedom and fear are at war." He noted that the terrorists targeted the United States because we embrace liberty. "The terrorists hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other," the president told us.

In other words, the terrorists view our personal liberties with contempt and see them as a weakness.

The challenge for all Americans -- today more than ever -- is to truly embrace the freedoms of the First Amendment and show just how strong we really are.

The First Amendment Center/AJR Poll on the First Amendment was conducted by the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut. A random national sample of 1,000 adults 18 and over were interviewed between June 12 and July 5. Sampling error is plus or minus three percent at the 95 percent confidence level. For smaller groups the sampling error is slightly higher. Weights were assigned to reflect characteristics of the population. Totals may not equal 100 percent due to rounding. Not all questions are asked every year.

Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center. Reprinted with permission.