Election fallout: Americans favor limits on projecting winners

Thursday, June 28, 2001

NEW YORK — A new poll released by the First Amendment Center reveals that the 2000 presidential election may have had a lasting impact on how Americans perceive both the press and the U.S. Supreme Court.

According to the State of the First Amendment survey — released each year as our nation celebrates its independence — 80% of those polled say networks should not be allowed to project winners of an election while people are still voting, up from 70% a year ago. Sixty-four percent say they believe people would be less likely to vote if a news report projected a winner, and more than half (53%) of respondents say they would favor a law that restricts news organizations from projecting a winner.

“A highly visible and reckless error — like predicting the wrong winner in a presidential election — can have devastating consequences for the First Amendment,” said Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “It’s disturbing to learn that four out of five Americans are comfortable with the idea of limiting the right to publish constitutionally protected information, as long as it gives them a greater sense of comfort about the election process.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court hearing to determine the outcome of the presidential election, a majority of respondents (51 %) say they strongly believe broadcasters should be allowed to televise the Higher Court’s proceedings; another 26% mildly agree.

“For the first time ever in this annual poll, three out of four Americans favor television access to the most important court in the land,” Paulson said.

The State of the First Amendment survey, conducted annually by the First Amendment Center, examines public attitudes toward freedom of speech, press, religion and the rights of assembly and petition.

Other findings from the survey:

  • Americans are less supportive of First Amendment rights than they were a year ago. This year, almost four in 10 (39%) say the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees. Last year, just two in 10 (22%) said so.
  • Americans have mixed feelings about the watchdog role of both the press and the government. When asked how important it is for the media to hold the government in check, 82% said it is “very” or “somewhat” important. At the same time, 71% said it is “very” or “somewhat” important for the government to hold the media in check. Four in 10 (41%) say the media have too much freedom, compared to 36% who say there’s too much government censorship.
  • While more than half (64%) of respondents say they had heard “little” or “nothing” about President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, 51% say they opposed allowing religious groups that receive government funding to include their religious message in the program. Another 51% are concerned that providing public funding to religious groups for social services violates the constitutional principle of separation of church and state.
  • Most Americans support some form of campaign finance reform. Six in 10 respondents say limiting the amount of money individuals or groups can contribute to political parties does not violate the right of free speech. A majority (86%) say political candidates should be required to disclose the names of individuals and organizations that make campaign contributions in federal elections. And three-quarters (76%) say there should be a limit to the amount of money political parties can spend during a federal election campaign.
  • Americans show increasing support for First Amendment protection for the Internet. Seventy-six percent of respondents say material on the Internet should have the same First Amendment protection as books and newspapers, up from 56% four years ago.
  • A clear majority (59%) now say they would oppose a constitutional amendment to prohibit the burning or desecrating of the American flag, compared to 51% in 2000 and 48% in 1999.

The survey was based on telephone interviews conducted by The Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut with 1,012 adults, ages 18 or older, conducted May 16, 2001 through June 6, 2001. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Contact: Sheila Owens, 212/317-6517
Ellen Ross, 212/317-6519