Commentary on the 2004 report

Monday, June 28, 2004

Freedom is making a comeback — of sorts.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans responding to the 2004 State of the First Amendment survey disagree with the statement that “the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.”

Two years ago, the survey showed virtually a 50-50 split on whether the First Amendment gives us too much freedom, as Americans grappled with the immediate aftermath of the “9/11” terror attacks and the needs of a new global war on terrorism. Some restrictions on freedoms seemed to promise greater security and safety to a nation shocked by horrific violence at home and abroad.

In the 2003 survey, the nation appeared to catch its collective breath and reconsider the balance between security and freedom: Just 34% said the First Amendment gives us too much freedom, with 60% disagreeing.

The trend continues this year with an additional nine-point swing, to a 30%-65% split in favor of First Amendment freedoms despite military action overseas and recurring homeland alerts about possible domestic terrorist threats — findings that are a return to results typical of what State of the First Amendment surveys found in the years just before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

These annual State of the First Amendment surveys by the First Amendment Center began in 1997 amid concerns that the First Amendment was not being taught in depth in the nation’s schools and that restraints on free expression or public access to information — from so-called free-speech zones on campus to the installation of filters on public library computer terminals to a rising tide of government secrecy — increasingly were common.

The annual surveys have shown that few Americans — typically 2% or less — could name unaided all five freedoms in the Amendment (speech, religion, press, assembly and petition), but that when reminded of them, Americans continued to hold the concepts in high regard.

The surveys have shown a nation in a vigorous debate with itself over how much freedom we should have, what kind of restrictions should be permitted — and in recent years, whether our very freedom makes us more vulnerable to those who would attack us.

Over time Americans appear able to shake off emotions of the moment and put free-expression issues in perspective. The rebalancing of opinion about First Amendment freedoms is but one example. Another from the 2004 survey is that despite the uproar following the Janet Jackson breast-baring incident at Super Bowl XXXVIII on Feb. 1, nearly six in 10 respondents said just a few months later that the nation has about the right amount of government regulation of television and radio with regard to sexually related content.

And despite loud calls for more government power to punish broadcasters for material some find offensive — and action in Congress to increase dramatically the fines that can be levied — parents are the overwhelming choice (with government a distant third) among survey respondents as the primary authority to keep inappropriate content in the media away from children.

Still, Americans continue to be ambivalent (some would say contradictory) in their support for specific freedoms as they are applied, particularly to others — and particularly about freedom of the press.

Among key findings in the 2004 survey:

  • In response to a general question, 58% say current government regulation on broadcast television with regard to references to sexual activity is about right, with 16% saying there is too much and 21% saying there is too little regulation.
  • But when asked more specific questions, 49% would extend that authority beyond the existing 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. time frame to also include late-night and overnight programs. And even though cable programming today is exempt from FCC standards applied to broadcasters, 54%, would support permitting the same 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. regulations to apply to cable television, with 45% in favor of applying such regulation around-the-clock.
  • Parents, by wide majority — from 71% to 87% — are seen as having the main responsibility to keep children from seeing “inappropriate material” on television, radio, movies or printed material. Survey respondents ranked the content providers — programmers, movie producers or theater owners and publishers — as the second-most-responsible group, with government running a distant third or fourth choice.
  • Even as 67% of those responding to the survey said that the nation’s educational system does a fair-to-poor job of teaching students about the First Amendment, 72% disagreed that a high school student should be allowed to wear a T-shirt with a message or picture that might be offensive to others.

The 2004 State of the First Amendment survey finds many Americans with a resurgent regard for the overall values of the First Amendment. But it also finds many divided and undecided in an increasingly vocal and visible search for the correct balance of personal freedom and public safety, free expression and personal standards, personal responsibility and media performance.

Americans are engaged in public debate and legal or legislative action on issues ranging from a proposed constitutional amendment to allow the banning of flag-desecration to the posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings to the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Even as the House and Senate are attempting to reconcile differing versions of legislation to vastly increase fines that can be levied by the Federal Communications Commission against those who broadcast “indecent” programming, programmers from MTV to TBS are toning down language and images in response to public complaints.

What Thomas Jefferson called “the marketplace of ideas,” where Americans would debate, discuss and decide issues of democracy, is alive and well and vigorous … with the discussion being prompted by a bit of halftime help from Ms. Jackson and her “wardrobe malfunction.”

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