Two years after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., our nation appears to have caught its breath--and regained some perspective.
Those horrific assaults took a tremendous toll, in lives as well as on our collective psyche. How could we prevent such attacks from happening again? Did we need to limit liberties in the interest of security? Were we too free to be truly safe?
That sense of freedom as an obstacle to the war on terrorism was reflected last year in our annual survey gauging public support for First Amendment freedoms (see "Too Free?" September 2002). For the first time in our polling, 49 percent of respondents said they believed the First Amendment gives us too much freedom.
While reaction to fear is largely reflexive, the passage of time allows us to be reflective. The 2003 State of the First Amendment survey--conducted by the First Amendment Center in collaboration with AJR--suggested that public support for First Amendment freedoms may be returning to pre-9/11 levels. About 60 percent of respondents indicated overall support for First Amendment freedoms, while 34 percent said First Amendment freedoms go too far.
While First Amendment advocates certainly can't regard it as a victory that one-third of Americans have misgivings about these fundamental freedoms, there are other signs that most Americans continue to embrace freedom of speech and religion. While respondents displayed less enthusiasm for freedom of the press, they did give high marks to the news media for their work during the war in Iraq.
Among the key findings:
• The least popular First Amendment right continued to be freedom of the press--46 percent said the press in America has too much freedom to do what it wants, up from 42 percent last year.
• Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said they favor the policy of embedding U.S. journalists into individual combat units, and 68 percent said the news media did an excellent or good job in covering the war.
• Despite the positive perception of war coverage, more than two out of three surveyed said the government should be able to review in advance journalists' reports directly from combat zones.
• Americans indicated a hunger for more information about the war on terrorism. Forty-eight percent of those surveyed said they believe that Americans have too little access to information about the federal government's efforts to combat terrorism--up from 40 percent last year.
• When asked whether they believe the media have too much freedom to publish or whether there's too much government censorship, response was split: Forty-three percent said there's too much media freedom, and 38 percent said there's too much government censorship.
One area spurring fierce debate over the last year has been the Federal Communications Commission's move to loosen media ownership restrictions. As had been long anticipated, the FCC in June voted to let networks own more television stations and to let media companies own a newspaper and TV and radio stations in the same market.
The public's unease with extensive media ownership by large corporations and conglomerates was reflected in the survey. The majority of respondents said the quality of news reporting has deteriorated and opposed the removal of limits on how many media outlets may be owned by a single company:
• Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said media ownership by fewer corporations has meant a decreased number of viewpoints available to the public. Fifty-three percent said the quality of information also has suffered.
• Almost eight Americans in 10 said owners exert substantial influence over news organizations' newsgathering and reporting decisions. Only 4 percent said they believed there is no tampering with story selection or play.
• Fifty-four percent said they favor maintaining federal limits on how many radio, television and newspaper outlets may be owned by a single company, but one in two said they opposed any increased regulation.
Overall, the 2003 State of the First Amendment survey suggests some special challenges for America's news media.
While most respondents gave the press positive reviews for Iraq war coverage and said they count on the news media to provide more information about the war on terrorism, they also said the press has too much freedom and indicated suspicion of those who own the nation's newspapers and broadcast stations.
Fortunately, Americans also recognize responsible and responsive news coverage when they see it. For all of the skepticism about news media ownership and excesses, the nation's journalists remain uniquely positioned to win support for a free press--and the First Amendment as a whole--by living up to the watchdog role envisioned by the founding fathers.
At a time when many remain tempted to roll back civil liberties in the name of security, a free press plays a crucial role.
The nation's news media truly honor the First Amendment when they ask the tough questions, fight to keep the public's business public and provide the kind of thorough and balanced reporting that is the lifeblood of a democracy.
For all of the poll questions and results, please see the First Amendment Center's Web site at www.firstamendmentcenter.org.