What the Polls Say About Free Speech in the United States

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“Free Speech” is a monthly column by Chris Finan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE), that shares his personal thoughts and opinions on a broad range of free expression issues; the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the American Booksellers Association. Finan welcomes comments and suggestions at chris@bookweb.org.

  • One-third of Americans do not know what the First Amendment is.
  • There has been a 50 percent increase in the number of people who think some books should be banned.
  • There is strong support for rating books like movies and video games.

These are some of the more disturbing results reported in two new polls conducted by the Newseum Institute and the Harris Poll.

According to the Newseum, 33 percent of Americans cannot name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. The Harris Poll says that in 2011, when it asked the question, “Do you think that there are any books that should be banned completely?” 18 percent of those surveyed answered “yes.” Today, that number has grown to 28 percent. Harris also reports that 71 percent of respondents want a rating system for books.

It is distressing that so many Americans do not know that the First Amendment protects their rights to free speech. The support for book ratings is also troubling because a rating system could facilitate book banning.

But the most alarming results should be viewed with caution. We all know that polls can be unreliable. They are only as good as their questions, and presidential preferences are far easier to record than attitudes toward complex issues like free speech.

These weaknesses are particularly apparent in the Harris Poll’s effort to measure the level of support for censorship.

For example, the pollsters asked 2,244 English-speaking people over the age of 18 to respond to the question, “Do you think that there are any books that should be banned completely?” But the question is too vague to measure anything. Almost everyone would like to ban something. The Supreme Court has declared that banning child pornography does not violate the First Amendment. So even ACLU members could answer yes to this question.

The problem of vagueness is even more apparent when the Harris Poll tries to quantify support for censoring school libraries. It asks, “Do you think that children should or should not be able to get the following books, or types of books, from school libraries?” Eighty percent of the respondents agreed that the Bible belonged there, but only 55 percent think that the Koran, the Torah, or the Talamud should be included.

The numbers get squishy when people are asked to consider categories of books instead of titles. Sixty percent said books with “explicit language” ought to be excluded. Support for banning books in other categories was also significant: “references to violence” (48 percent); “books that include witchcraft and sorcery” (44 percent); “references to sex” (43 percent); “references to drugs and alcohol” (37 percent); “books that include vampires” (36 percent).

These numbers probably overstate the support for censorship — perhaps significantly. The categories are so vaguely defined that it is left to the respondent’s imagination to guess what they may mean. What is “explicit language”? Is it the words you use when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or is it the description of a sexual act? How often is it used?

And what “children” are we talking about? Are they seven or 17? Without any guidance, a person might assume that kids are borrowing Tropic of Cancer from their elementary school library.

Where kids are concerned, most respondents probably err on the side of censorship in giving their answers.

Clearly, context is critical when we are talking about books. We can be certain that many of the people who objected to books about witchcraft would have answered differently if they had been asked whether Harry Potter should be banned from school libraries.

Yet there are lessons to be learned from these polls.

Young people tend to support free speech more strongly than their elders, particularly when their own rights are at stake. The Newseum poll asked 1,002 adults, “Does the First Amendment go too far in guaranteeing freedoms?” Only nine percent of respondents under 30 think so. Then the number begins to rise: ages 30-49 (14 percent); 50-64 (18 percent); and seniors (22 percent).

One reason why support for free speech appears to weaken as people age is that many become parents who worry about the impact of media on their kids. In my house that day came when my teenage son first played rap music on the car radio when his mother was driving. (Our family had a spirited debate on the use of the words “bitches” and “ho’s”.)

The Harris Poll reveals that concern for protecting the young exists across the political spectrum. Republican respondents tend to be more censorious about school libraries: 73 percent would ban books with explicit language. But so would 60 percent of Democrats. Although the Harris Poll does not provide a breakdown, the 71 percent of respondents who support book ratings must also include a lot of Democrats.

Ultimately, there is nothing very surprising in either poll. Free speech is an abstract concept for most people. We tend to think about it only when confronted with controversies that force us to choose sides. Unfortunately, these often involve speech that most people find deeply offensive. Even normally stout defenders of free speech sometimes take a different view, as in the case of the authors who protested PEN American Center’s decision to honor the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

That is why it is so important for booksellers and other defenders of free speech to use occasions like Banned Books Week to educate the public about the books that are being challenged and banned. People begin to think differently about free speech when they see some of their favorites in Banned Books Week displays.

Booksellers don’t have to feel any hesitation about whether the public will support them — or at least give them a fair hearing. Those who participate in Banned Books Week regularly tell us that their customers want to discuss the issue and are grateful to the bookstore for providing the opportunity. (Tom Campbell of Regulator Bookshop in Durham, North Carolina, attested to this in a Bookselling This Week interview last week. Tom discusses the reactions to a reading from banned books that he organized as part of Independent Bookstore Day earlier this year.)

The bottom line is that a large majority of Americans support free speech. The Newseum Institute began asking people in 1999 whether they think the First Amendment goes too far. Only in 2002, the year after the 9/11 attacks, did fewer than half of respondents say that it did. In 10 of those years, more than 70 percent have answered with a resounding no.

What the polls clearly show is that we can’t take that support for granted. We should never stop talking about the importance of free speech.