Too Free?  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 2002

Too Free?   

In a First Amendment Center/AJR 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.

By Ken Paulson
Ken Paulson is executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tennessee.     

Related reading:
   » The Information Squeeze
   » Battle Cry

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 8 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 + or - 3 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.

Poll Results Follow

Can you name any of the specific rights that are guaranteed by the First Amendment?

 

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

freedom of the press

11%

12%

12%

14%

14%

freedom of speech

49%

44%

60%

59%

58%

freedom of religion

21%

13%

16%

16%

18%

right to petition

2%

  2%

  2%

  1%

2%

right of assembly

10%

8%

9%

10%

10%

other

7%

6%

12%

14%

19%

don't know/refused to answer

N/A

N/A

37%

36%

35%

The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Based on your own feelings, please tell whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: The First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

 

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

16%

10%

29%

41%

mildly agree

12%

12%

10%

8%

mildly disagree

22%

26%

19%

15%

strongly disagree

45%

48%

39%

32%

don't know/refused

5%

5%

3%

3%

The U.S. Constitution protects certain rights, but not everyone considers each right important. How important is it that you have the right..

..to speak freely about whatever you want?

  1997

2002

essential

72%

75%

important

27%

23%

not important

1%

2%

don't know/ref.

0%

1%

..to be informed by a free press?

1997

2002

essential

60%

68%

important

33%

26%

not important

6%

5%

don't know/ref.

1%

1%

..to privacy?

1997

2002

essential

78%

81%

important

21%

18%

not important

1%

1%

don't know/ref.

0%

0%

..to practice the religion of your choice?
 

1997

2002

essential

81%

83%

important

18%

15%

not important

1%

2%

don't know/ref.

0%

0%

..to practice no religion?
1997

2002

essential

66%

69%

important

24%

20%

not important

9%

8%

don't know/ref.

1%

3%

..to assemble, march, protest or petition the government?
1997

2002

essential

56%

61%

important

36%

31%

not important

7%

8%

don't know/ref.

1%

0%

..to own firearms?
1997

2002

essential

33%

48%

important

31%

31%

not important

33%

20%

don't know/ref.

3%

2%

Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

People should be allowed to express unpopular opinions.

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

68%

58%

69%

74%

67%

mildly agree

22%

28%

26%

19%

27%

mildly disagree

5%

8%

2%

3%

4%

strongly disagree

4%

5%

3%

2%

2%

don't know/refused

1%

1%

0%

1%

0%

People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups.

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

22%

25%

29%

mildly agree

24%

22%

28%

mildly disagree

15%

16%

14%

strongly disagree

38%

35%

28%

don't know/refused

1%

3%

2%

Musicians should be allowed to sing songs with lyrics that others might find offensive< /i>

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

23%

27%

32%

34%

31%

mildly agree

28%

29%

27%

27%

26%

mildly disagree

16%

15%

12%

9%

14%

strongly disagree

31%

26%

28%

28%

27%

don't know/refused

3%

4%

2%

2%

2%

People should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to racial groups.

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

8%

8%

15%

16%

14%

mildly agree

15%

13%

17%

18%

20%

mildly disagree

14%

16%

15%

15%

16%

strongly disagree

61%

62%

52%

49%

48%

didn't know/refused

2%

1%

1%

2%

1%

People should be allowed to display in a public place art that has content that might be offensive to others.

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

20%

17%

22%

24%

22%

mildly agree

24%

24%

24%

26%

24%

mildly disagree

22%

24%

17%

16%

22%

strongly disagree

31%

33%

34%

31%

30%

don't know/refused

4%

2%

4%

3%

2%

Even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, government has placed some restrictions on it.

Overall, do you think Americans have too much freedom to speak freely, too little freedom to speak freely, or is the amount about right?

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

too much freedom

10%

12%

11%

12%

10%

too little freedom

18%

26%

25%

26%

21%

about right

68%

59%

62%

61%

67%

don't know/refused

4%

3%

2%

2%

1%

Even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, government has placed some restrictions on it.

Overall, do you think that Americans have too much press freedom, too little press freedom, or is the amount about right?

1999

2000

2001

2002

too much freedom

31%

40%

36%

33%

too little freedom

17%

14%

13%

13%

about right

49%

43%

47%

51%

don't know/refused

4%

3%

4%

2%

Some people believe that the media has too much freedom to publish whatever it wants. Others believe there is too much government censorship.

Which of these beliefs lies closest to your own?

2001

2002

too much media freedom

41%

42%

too much gov. censorship

36%

32%

neither

12%

15%

both

7%

8%

don't know/refused

4%

4%

Overall, do you think the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, too little freedom to do what it wants, or is the amount about right?

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

too much freedom

38%

42%

51%

46%

42%

too little freedom

9%

8%

7%

8%

8%

about right

50%

48%

41%

42%

49%

don't know/refused

3%

3%

2%

3%

1%

Newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of a story.

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

56%

38%

54%

53%

43%

mildly agree

24%

27%

22%

22%

26%

mildly disagree

11%

14%

9%

10%

16%

strongly disagree

6%

18%

11%

13%

11%

don't know/refused

3%

3%

3%

2%

3%

Newspapers should be allowed to freely criticize the U.S military about its strategy and performance.

2002

strongly agree

33%

mildly agree

24%

mildly disagree

18%

strongly disagree

24%

don't know/refused

1%

Some people feel that the U.S. Constitution should be amended to make it illegal to burn or desecrate the American flag as a form of political dissent. Others disagree.

Do you think the U.S. Constitution should or should not be amended to prohibit burning or desecrating the American flag?

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

should not

49%

48%

51%

59%

51%

should*

49%

51%

46%

39%

46%

d.k./refused

2%

1%

3%

2%

2%

*(For those who responded "should"): If an amendment prohibiting burning or desecrating the American flag were approved, it would be the first time any of the freedoms in the First Amendment have been amended in over 200 years.

Knowing this, would you still support an amendment to prohibit burning or desecrating the American flag?

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

yes

88%

90%

87%

81%

83%

no

9%

8%

12%

15%

15%

d.k./refused

3%

2%

1%

4%

2%

Do you think Americans have too much, too little, or just about the right amount of access to government records?

2001

2002

too much

7%

8%

too little

48%

48%

just about the right amount

30%

38%

don't know/refused

15%

5%

Do you think Americans have too much, too little, or just about the right amount of access to information about the federal government's war on terrorism?

2002

too much

16%

too little

40%

just about the right amount

38%

don't know/refused

6%

Do you think Americans have too much, too little, or just about the right amount of access to personal information about you?

2002

too much

60%

too little

3%

just about the right amount

33%

don't know/refused

3%

Do you agree or disagree with this statement: "In covering the war on terrorism, the American press has been too aggressive in asking government officials for information."

2002

strongly agree

29%

mildly agree

19%

mildly disagree

23%

strongly disagree

26%

don't know/refused

3%

For each, please tell whether you agree or disagree that citizens should have access to such information.

...Police reports of crimes committed in the local community

2002

strongly agree

65%

mildly agree

23%

mildly disagree

5%

strongly disagree

6%

don't know/refused

1%

...The names of persons arrested for committing crimes in the local community, and the crimes for which they are being charged

2002

strongly agree

54%

mildly agree

26%

mildly disagree

10%

strongly disagree

8%

don't know/refused

1%

...The names of sex offenders that are registered with the local sheriff's office or police department

2002

strongly agree

81%

mildly agree

13%

mildly disagree

3%

strongly disagree

3%

don't know/refused

0%

...Transcripts of city council meetings

2002

strongly agree

72%

mildly agree

21%

mildly disagree

3%

strongly disagree

2%

don't know/refused

1%

...The records of health inspections conducted at local restaurants

2002

strongly agree

83%

mildly agree

13%

mildly disagree

2%

strongly disagree

1%

don't know/ref.

0%

...Employment records, including salary and benefits, of local school officials

2002

strongly agree

43%

mildly agree

30%

mildly disagree

15%

strongly disagree

11%

don't know/refused

2%

...Records of local government officials' expense accounts

2002

strongly agree

65%

mildly agree

21%

mildly disagree

8%

strongly disagree

4%

don't know/refused

1%

...Local real estate records, including the sale price,assessed value and taxes paid on all residential homes

2002

strongly agree

43%

mildly agree

29%

mildly disagree

16%

strongly disagree

12%

don't know/refused

1%

Overall, how would you rate the job that the American educational system does in teaching students about the First Amendment?

2001

2002

excellent

. 5%

. 5%

good

.25%

. 26%

fair

.39%

. 35%

poor

.24%

.28%

don't know/refused

7%

.6%

Many college and university professors currently have the academic freedom to take controversial stands in their classrooms and to publish controversial materials in books and journals.

Would you favor or oppose restrictions on the academic freedom of professors to criticize government/military policy during times of war?

2002

favor strongly

22%

favor mildly

19%

oppose mildly

24%

oppose strongly

32%

don't know/refused

3%

Even though the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, government has placed some restrictions on it.

Overall, do you think Americans have too much religious freedom, too little religious freedom, or is the amount about right?

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

too much freedom

6%

8%

5%

4%

6%

too little freedom

21%

26%

29%

32%

20%

about right

71%

63%

63%

62%

70%

don't know/refused

2%

3%

3%

2%

4%

Do you agree or disagree with the following statement:

Government officials should be allowed to post the Ten Commandments inside government buildings.

2002

strongly agree

52%

mildly agree

18%

mildly disagree

12%

strongly disagree

16%

don't know/refused

2%

Overall, do you think that students in public schools have too much religious freedom, too little religious freedom, or about theright amount while at school?

2001

2002

too much

3%

3%

too little

53%

53%

just about right amount

40%

40%

don't know/refused

4%

4%

In the interest of national security, government should be able to monitor religious groups even if that means infringing upon the religious freedom of the group's members.

2002

strongly agree

25%

mildly agree

23%

mildly disagree

19%

strongly disagree

28%

don't know/refused

5%

In light of the government's war on terrorism in response to the World Trade Center attacks, some people think that the government should have more power to monitor the activities of Muslims legally living in the United States than it has to monitor other religious groups. Others say that monitoring Muslims more closely than others would violate the Muslims' right to free exercise of their religion.

Which of these comes closest to your own opinion?

2002

government should have more power to monitor Muslims than others

42%

treating Muslims differently violates their free exercise rights

50%

don't know/refused

8%

Any group that wants to should be allowed to hold a rally for a cause or issue even if it may be offensive to others in the community.

1997

1999

2000

2001

2002

strongly agree

38%

30%

34%

40%

33%

mildly agree

34%

32%

32%

25%

34%

mildly disagree

10%

16%

12%

11%

13%

strongly disagree

15%

20%

19%

22%

18%

don't know/refused

3%

3%

4%

2%

2%

Muslims should be allowed to hold a rally for a cause or issue even if it may be offensive to others in the community.

2002

strongly agree

30%

mildly agree

36%

mildly disagree

12%

strongly disagree

19%

don't know/refused

3%

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