Educated public more likely to back First Amendment rights, panel says

Thursday, July 29, 1999

ARLINGTON, Va. — The better people understand their free-speech rights, the more they support the First Amendment, a professor of political science says.

Ken Dautrich...
Ken Dautrich

“Those people who are more knowledgeable [of their First Amendment rights] are much more supportive and enthusiastic (toward those freedoms),” Ken Dautrich, director of the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, said yesterday at the World Center. It was the third discussion of the 1999 State of the First Amendment survey report by the First Amendment Center.

The survey found that a third of respondents think the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. But it also revealed that, across the board, “Better-educated people are more tolerant of press and speech freedoms,” Dautrich said.

Laura Murphy, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington,
D.C., said, “The survey is a sad commentary on where we are with the American
people.” The news media, she said, need to stop being so arrogant about their First Amendment rights and show more sensitivity in dealing with the
public, because the people have legitimate fears and concerns.

Laura Murphy...
Laura Murphy

Organizations interested in freedom of expression should seize the opportunity to educate the public, Murphy said. “The survey is a call to arms.
We need to study [the survey results] to find out what messages we need to get
out there. We need to encourage opportunities to discuss the First Amendment
in generic terms, staying away from emotional [times] that are either
hostile or favorable,” such as when the news is intensively covering stories like Princess Diana’s death or
the Littleton, Colo., school shootings, she said.

Rights are gradually eroding because the public fails to learn about its freedoms, said Robert Richards, law professor at Pennsylvania State University. “Although in principle people are excited about the First Amendment,
when we get into the nitty-gritty details of what they practice and what they
don’t practice, there’s a real difference” in public opinion of those rights,
he said.

Richards said he taught a class on the First Amendment to first-year law students,
and he was “astounded at some of the feelings students have about free speech
and free press.” He said the students were accustomed to having their school
newspapers censored by the faculty; they were not aware their press rights
were protected.

“When it comes time to put the First Amendment values into
motion, they don’t realize they have these rights,” Richards said.

Donna Rice Hugh...
Donna Rice Hughes

Panelists also discussed increasing public acceptance of government regulation of the Internet. “Because of the
accessibility of the Internet, [parents are] feeling a lack of control. They
feel unable to protect their children [from] the Internet, as opposed to
television, which is more regulated,” according to Donna Rice Hughes, vice
president for marketing for Enough is Enough.

Murphy said, “By and large, with the techno gap between children and their
parents, the Internet is feared in Congress.” Faced with public
anxiety, Democrats and Republicans are prone to knee-jerk regulatory reactions, she said.

“Parents need to control the content their children see, not the government,
because a lot of good information will end up being blocked out,” Murphy said.
“Once parents find they can purchase blocking programs (for the Internet),
their fears are reduced.”

Mainstream press lumped in with tabloids
Mainstream media are taking on more and more tabloid qualities, the ombudsman
for The Washington Post said.

Bruce Sanford...
Bruce Sanford

“It’s mostly entertainment,” said E.R. Shipp. “And we’re seeing mainstreams
adopt some of their practices,” such as celebrity reporting. Shipp joined other
panelists in a second discussion yesterday, this one on press rights.

Bruce Sanford, news media lawyer with Baker and Hostetler, said, “There’s
nothing inherently evil or bad about these tabloids.”

But when panelists compared popular tabloid content to the media’s coverage of
the recent death of John F. Kennedy Jr., they disagreed on whether the press had gone too
far in covering the tragedy.

Laurence McQuil...
Laurence McQuillan

“I was surprised at the extent of the
[coverage],” said Laurence McQuillan, chief White House correspondent for Reuters. “But it was such a compelling human-interest story. … The interest
around the world was intense.”

The media did not invade the Kennedy family’s privacy, he said. “Whether it
was the family’s choice or not, they became a worldwide interest, and the
press has an obligation to report on them.”

Shipp disagreed. “Those big numbers in the survey show the public is disgusted
with round-the-clock coverage, such as the coverage of JFK Jr.’s death. We
lost the sense of proportion we should have kept on this story, as we have
done with other stories,” she said.

E.R. Shipp...
E.R. Shipp

“I hope [the press is] just going through a phase,” Shipp said. “There’s this
great lack of trust and respect for what we do on an everyday basis.
Journalists don’t really listen to the cumulative effect of their readers’
messages saying they don’t trust us.”

Shipp suggested that “the sense of an ethical conduct should be a part of
every newsroom discussion,” and that the industry can only improve if young
journalists are trained well.