Distrust leads Americans to disregard First Amendment, panelists say

Thursday, July 22, 1999

Armstrong Willi...
Armstrong Williams and Nadine Strossen

NEW YORK — If support for the First Amendment is losing ground among Americans, it may be because they distrust the press as a powerful institution, panelists said yesterday at Newseum/NY in discussing the new First Amendment Center survey, State of the First Amendment.

It was the second of three panels in different locations examining the 1999 survey results, which found great erosion of public backing for free-expression rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Many Americans surveyed expressed the view that the amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. More than half of the 1,001 respondents said the press has too much freedom; nearly a third believed the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees.

The First Amendment reads, “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.”

First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler said there was “a misconception [about] the 45 words of the First Amendment” in American society. The amendment, he said, protects “the freedom of choice — to decide on your own, what you want to see or not see.” It also protects each citizen’s opinion, he said.

But not everyone feels that all opinions should be protected, according to the survey. The first State of the First Amendment survey in 1997 showed that 80% of those polled said newspapers should be able to publish freely without government approval. That percentage dropped to 65% in the 1999 survey.

Press freedom as we know it could be at risk, Seigenthaler warned. Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed.

“The press is distrusted by the public who see it as a powerful institution, [and] people distrust power,” said Strossen.

The press has brought its low public esteem on itself, suggested syndicated talk radio and television show host Armstrong Williams.

“The First Amendment is a double-edged sword,” he said, adding that news reporters needed to return to the journalistic roots of unbiased presentation of both sides of a story. “The press has become champions of our own pocketbook,” Williams said.

The news media are trying, however, to repair broken connections with audiences, said First Amendment Center Ombudsman Paul McMasters. He said the press had shown renewed vigor in attempts to work in the interests of ordinary people.

“Newspapers are engaged in self-examination in an effort to restore public confidence in them” by reaching out to audiences that are more educated and sophisticated than ever, McMasters said.

The First Amendment, said panelists, not only protects pornography, flag-burning and hate speech, but also gives people the power to protest those expressions.

Restoring confidence in First Amendment freedoms, Strossen suggested, may come down to the question of “who does the public distrust more, the media or government?” Although distrust in the media pervades American society, panelists agreed, they said distrust of government was still higher.

“To give over the power to elected officials is [an] atrocity. It is an anathema [to] what we’ve learned over 200 years, McMasters said.

The 1999 survey was also discussed on July 20 at the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Another panel is scheduled for July 28 at the World Center in Arlington, Va.