Digital revolution raises new issues

Monday, June 4, 2007

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — More than 50% of Americans believe the government should
not restrict or regulate free speech on the Internet, according to a nationwide
telephone survey.

The First Amendment Center sponsored the survey to learn what Americans think
about the free-speech implications of social-networking sites such as MySpace
and Facebook.

Significant findings
Only 4% of respondents said they had “been the
victim of an untrue and/or offensive comment” on a social-networking site. A
majority 50.2% said they had not, but 31.5% said they would “consider taking
legal action” if they believed they were misrepresented on such a site.

The notably high percentage of respondents in the “do not know/did not
answer” category for the two questions on offensive comments was a result of the
survey design. The survey showed 45.8% said they did not know if they had been
the victims of such remarks, or declined to respond. But that number was
affected by the number of those who had not heard of social-networking sites —
which was 40.2% of the total respondents to the survey.

As such, only 60% of total respondents in the survey responded to the two
questions on offensive comments. (See accompanying survey.)

The survey also attempted to measure awareness and online activity, finding
that 72.2% of respondents have daily access to the Internet. Although 26.1% of
those surveyed never access the Internet, 68.6% of respondents go online at
least once a day, and 16.4% indicated they do so at least 10 times daily. Nearly
59% of respondents had heard of Facebook or MySpace. Of the 58.5% who were
aware of these sites, 22.7% said someone in their household participates in
social-networking groups.

To measure participants’ openness to online free speech, the survey posed
three questions.

  1. “Generally speaking, do you think the government should restrict or regulate
    free speech on the Internet?” More than half (52.1%) said government should not
    do so, with 32.5% saying it should and another 15.4% indicating either they did
    not know or they would not respond to that question.

  2. “Does the First Amendment give Americans the right to say anything they want
    to about anyone at any time on the Internet?” More than half of respondents
    (54.5%) said the First Amendment does not afford this right, with 32.6% saying
    it does.

  3. “Do you think public school officials ought to have the authority to punish
    students who post untrue and/or offensive materials about the school on a social
    networking site, even if they use their computers at home?” Almost half (48.3%)
    of respondents want to give public school officials that authority, compared to
    38.1% who would not do so.

A statistical comparison indicated that the variable of age affected
respondents’ views of online free speech. Nearly 40% of respondents who
were at least 60 years old thought government ought to be able to regulate
speech on the Internet, compared to 26.1% of 18-25 year olds who did. Older
adults also were less likely to support the notion that the First Amendment
gives Internet users carte blanche to say anything about anyone at any time, and
they were the most supportive of the idea that public school officials should be
able to regulate student speech that defamed the school — even if the speech
originated on the students’ home computers. Nearly 48% of respondents who were
18 to 25 years old thought the First Amendment should provide limitless
protection for online speech, but only 20.9% of those 60 and older agreed.

At least 50% of those 40 and older agreed that public school officials ought
to be able to regulate student speech, while 36.4% of 26- to 29-year-olds
agreed; followed by 39.8% of 18-25 year olds who thought student speech could be

Gender, education and income also affected respondents’ views on government
restriction of online speech. Thirty-five percent of women thought the
government should be able to regulate Internet speech, while only 28.4% of male
respondents agreed. In terms of education, those who had a bachelor’s degree or
higher were less likely to favor government regulation of the Internet. In terms
of income, those who made less than $10,000 were much more likely to support the
government’s ability to restrict online free speech than those who had a higher

Where do Americans get their information?
Five questions attempted
to determine what sources of information Americans use for research and news.
Nearly a quarter of respondents said they had used the Internet site Wikipedia.
In terms of news, 37.8% of respondents said they used a mixture of all media to
stay informed, while 23.0% said they followed the major networks as their
primary source of news. Participants also used other sources as their primary
news outlet: 16.8% cable, 9.4% newspapers, 5.4% Internet, 3.6% radio, and .08%
magazines. Fewer than 2% reported they did not follow the news at all.

Because the major network channels are still a primary source for a large
segment of society, the survey asked two questions regarding the most
significant change in network news in recent years – the appointment of “Today
Show” anchor Katie Couric as the first woman solo anchor of a major network
broadcast. In September, Couric took the helm at the “CBS Evening News,” making
broadcast history. The first question asked: “Do you think a woman can be as
effective as a national anchor for a major network as a man?” Ninety percent of
Americans said a woman could be as effective as a man, indicating perhaps the
public would be accepting of such a change. Five percent said a woman could not
measure up to a male counterpart, while 2.8% said maybe she could do as well,
and 2.3% said they did not know or declined to answer.

In a followup question, the survey asked: “Was Katie Couric, herself, a good
choice to be a solo anchor at the ‘CBS Evening News’?” Just over 56% said Couric
was a good choice, while 16.5% disagreed and 27.4% did not know or did not
answer. These statistics suggest that respondents overwhelmingly favor a woman
as solo anchor at a major network, but they are somewhat divided over CBS’s
selection of Couric. Age and gender also affected respondents’ views of Couric.
Generally, the youngest segment of the population (18-25) preferred her as a
selection for the anchor chair, and more women than men thought she was a good

The last question about sources of information posed: “Do you trust your
local newspaper as an accurate source of news?”  Nearly 58% of respondents
said they trust their local newspaper, while 31.5% indicated they do not. Age
also affected whether respondents trusted their local newspaper, with the oldest
group being the most skeptical.

The data testify to the impact of the Internet, with
more than 72% of respondents saying they have daily access to it. Despite the
fact most respondents were over 30 years of age, nearly 60% of them had heard of
social-networking groups called Facebook and MySpace. The bottom line is this:
As more people use social-networking sites, the potential for legal problems
associated with speech on the Internet continues to grow. The courts are plowing
new ground in terms of speech on social-networking sites, and perhaps within the
decade, the nation’s high court will have to draw a new line for acceptable
speech on MySpace and Facebook, as well as other similar sites.

To obtain a random sample, the First
Amendment Center purchased random-digit-dial telephone numbers from Survey
Sampling Inc. for the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. A
public-relations research class at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.,
conducted the survey on behalf of the center. Under faculty supervision, 25
students called the RDD numbers from Oct. 10, 2006, to Nov. 2, 2006. They asked
respondents 20 questions, amassing a sample size of 727 U.S. adults 18 years or
older. The survey has a sampling error of plus or minus 4%.

Researchers asked six demographic questions to measure whether the data
represented an accurate national sample. In terms of gender, 60.9% of
respondents were women; 37.3% who were men. The respondents did not reflect the
age group of the typical MySpace and Facebook user. Only 16.6% of respondents
were under age 30, with 81.7% of respondents age 30 and older.

(See survey
instrument for complete age breakdowns.

Respondents were largely from the South, with 40.4% participating from that
region. Another 24.3% of respondents were from the Midwest, with 18.2% from the
West and 16.6% from the Northeast. Nearly 80% were white, while 6.7% were black,
3.7% were Hispanic, 3.6% were mixed race, 1.7% were Asian, 1.1% were American
Indian, and 1.5% declared “something else” as their racial identity.

Respondents also reported their household income, with 23.7% saying their
family made more than $70,000 last year. Nearly 5% said they made between
$60,000 and $70,000 last year. Another 8.8% made between $50,000 and $60,000,
12.0% made between $30,000 and $40,000, 10.3% earned between $40,000 and
$50,000, 6.5% made between $20,000 and $30,000, 7.7% made between $10,000 and
$20,000, and 4.7% earned less than $10,000 annually.

Survey participants also were educated, with 37% saying they had either a
bachelor’s degree or graduate degree, and another 32.7% indicating they had some
college instruction. Fewer than 9% did not finish high school, with 20.5% saying
they had a high school diploma.

Pam Parry is associate professor of journalism at Belmont University in
Nashville, Tenn.

Student researchers included: Lisa Bates, Laura Buchanan, Nikkia Bullard,
Lindsey Bunt, Mackenzie Fischer, Carrie Griggs, Madeline Hagan, Jessica Haines,
Rebecca Hill, Val Horton, Jacklyn Johnston, Kristin McCarter, Christina McGhie,
Erin Mullen, Ben Palos, Stephanie Phalor, Molly Reed, Jessica Reuter, Callie
Riggs, Anne Roberts, Crystal Sparks, Grace Stewart, Sara Taylor, Emily Telford,
Shandra West and Terry Winnett.