’07 survey shows Americans’ views mixed on basic freedoms

Monday, September 24, 2007

  • Survey tables

    WASHINGTON — Sixty-five percent of Americans believe that the nation's
    founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the
    Constitution establishes a Christian nation, according to the “State of the
    First Amendment 2007” national survey released Sept. 11 by the First Amendment

    The survey also found that 71% of Americans would limit the amount a
    corporation or union could contribute to a political campaign, with 64% favoring
    such a limit on individual contributions. Sixty-two percent would limit the
    amount a person could contribute to his or her own campaign. Support for such
    limits increased from the 2000 survey in all three areas: by nine percentage
    points in favor of limits on self-funding, by seven points concerning limits on
    individual contributions to someone else; and by three points on limits on
    corporations and unions.

    The First Amendment Center has conducted the annual survey since 1997. This
    year’s survey, being released to mark both annual Constitution Day (Sept. 17)
    activities and the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, also

    • Just 56% believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all
      religious groups, regardless of how extreme — down 16 points from 72% in 2000.
    • 58% of Americans would prevent protests during a funeral procession, even on
      public streets and sidewalks; and 74% would prevent public school students from
      wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that might offend others.
    • 34% (lowest since the survey first was done in 1997) think the press “has
      too much freedom,” but 60% of Americans disagree with the statement that the
      press tries to report the news without bias, and 62% believe the making up of
      stories is a widespread problem in the news media — down only slightly from
    • 25% said “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees,”
      well below the 49% recorded in the 2002 survey that followed the 9/11 terrorist
      attacks in 2001, but up from 18% in 2006.

    “Americans clearly have mixed views of what First Amendment freedoms are and
    to whom they should fully apply,” said Gene Policinski, vice president and
    executive director of the First Amendment Center. “To me the results of this
    year’s survey endorse the idea of more and better education for young people —
    our nation’s future leaders — about our basic freedoms.”

    The right to practice one’s own religion was deemed “essential” or
    “important” by nearly all Americans (97%); as was the right to “speak freely
    about whatever you want” (98%) and to “assemble, march, protest or petition the
    government (94%),” Policinski said. “Still, Americans are hard pressed to name
    the five freedoms included in the First Amendment,” he said. Speech is the only
    one named by a majority of respondents (64%), followed by religion (19%), press
    and assembly (each 16%) and petition (3%).

    Comments on the survey by other First Amendment Center experts:

  • First Amendment Center Senior Scholar Charles Haynes: “While the
    survey shows Americans highly value religious freedom, a significant number
    support privileging the religion of the majority, especially in public schools.
    Four decades after the Supreme Court declared state-sponsored religious
    practices unconstitutional in public schools, 58% of respondents support
    teacher-led prayers and 43% favor school holiday programs that are entirely
    Christian. Moreover, 50% would allow schools to teach the Bible as a factual
    text in a history class.

    “The strong support for official recognition of the majority faith appears to
    be grounded in a belief that the United States was founded as a Christian
    nation, in spite of the fact that the Constitution nowhere mentions God or
    Christianity. Of course, people define “Christian nation” in various ways —
    ranging from a nation that reflects Christian values to a nation where the
    government favors the Christian faith. But almost one-third of respondents
    appear to believe that the religious views of the majority should rule: 28%
    would deny freedom to worship to any group that the majority considers ‘extreme
    or on the fringe.’”

  • First Amendment Center Scholar David Hudson: “The survey results
    indicate the public does not have strong support for student expression — an
    unfortunate reality given that students may not appreciate our constitutional
    democracy if they live in an environment that does not respect their rights to
    freedom of expression. We all would do well to remember the words of Justice
    Robert Jackson many years ago: ‘That boards of education are educating the young
    for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms
    of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and
    teach youth to discount principles of our government as mere platitudes.’”

  • Free-press and freedom of information expert Paul McMasters:
    “Media-industry reports seem to be telling us that many Americans don’t need the
    press, and this survey seems to be telling us they don’t trust it, either. While
    more than 9 of 10 do say the right to be informed by a free press is essential
    or important, significant numbers want to limit that freedom. A third think the
    press has too much freedom and 60-plus percent believe the press is biased in
    its reporting or, worse, falsifies or makes up stories. These responses are far
    too chilling for a healthy democracy.”

  • First Amendment Center Scholar Ronald Collins: “The survey reveals a constant and firm support for robust free speech in wartime. This suggests that, with increasing frequency, Americans may no longer hold firm to the belief that patriotism is always synonymous with endorsing our government’s involvement in this or that war or military conflict. If so, that is a most promising sign for a democracy truly committed to First Amendment principles. When it comes to the press, however, the survey suggests a more complicated, even nuanced, attitude about First Amendment freedoms. This could well be due to contemporary notions of the meaning of “the press.” As the public perception of 'the press' changes — to encompass, for example, bloggers and TV pundits — so, too, do our attitudes about press freedom and responsibility. In that world, it may necessary, now more than ever, for the traditional press to take steps to buttress its own credibility and thus distinguish itself from its stepchildren. Unfortunately, far too often the momentum seems to move in the other direction.”

  • The State of the First Amendment 2007 survey is available online at the First
    Amendment Center’s Web site, www.firstamendmentcenter.org. (See results.)

    Methodology: The 2007 survey was conducted by New England Survey
    Research Associates. It was directed by Dr. Kenneth Dautrich and Dr. David Yalof
    and commissioned by the First Amendment Center. Commissioned annually by the
    center since the project began in 1997, the study examines public attitudes
    toward freedom of speech, press, religion and the rights of assembly and
    petition. The 2007 national survey of 1,003 respondents was conducted by
    telephone between Aug. 16 and Aug. 26. The sampling error is plus-or-minus

    The First Amendment Center works to preserve and protect First Amendment
    freedoms through information and education. The center serves as a forum for the
    study and exploration of free-expression issues, including freedom of speech, of
    the press and of religion, and the rights to assemble and to petition the

    The center, with offices at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and
    Washington, D.C., is an operating program of the Freedom Forum and is associated
    with the Newseum. Its affiliation with Vanderbilt University is through the
    Vanderbilt Institute for Public Policy Studies.

    # # #

    Media contact:
    Gene Policinski
    615-727-1600 or

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